First stem cell treatment for human administered in Atlanta

Taking a landmark step, Atlanta doctors have injected millions of embryonic stem cells into a partially paralyzed patient, treating a human for the first time in the U.S. with the controversial research, officials said Monday.

The medical procedure took place Friday at an unknown local hospital and the person, who was not identified, later entered the Shepherd Center, which specializes in brain and spinal cord injuries, for rehabilitation.

While supporters hailed the treatment as a monumental medical advance, others derided it as a moral atrocity. There was some irony in Atlanta being selected as the first American site for embryonic stem cell treatment, considering there have been several legislative proposals previously calling for a research ban. Clearly there was a divide when the news was revealed.

“This is a big deal for Atlanta,” said Steve Stice, director of the University of Georgia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center.” One of my son’s roommates at UGA [who is paralyzed] could be helped by this eventually.”

Atlanta was chosen for the initial clinical trial because of the city’s reputation for cutting-edge research in spinal-cord injuries and the Shepherd Center’s advanced rehabilitation center, said Anna Krassowska, spokeswoman for Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., which is sponsoring the research. The stem cell treatment could be offered to 10 patients at seven sites nationwide, with Atlanta receiving more patients, Krassowska said.

“This clinical trial represents another step forward in Shepherd Center’s involvement in an attempt to find a cure for paralysis in people with spinal cord injury,” Dr. David Apple, the center leader for the stem cell procedure, said in a statement.

The Shepherd Center will play a large role in judging the success of the trial by closely monitoring whether the patient regains any sensation or movement.

If successful, the treatment could would mark a medical milestone and elevate Atlanta’s stature in the scientific community, providing a breakthrough in dealing with spinal cord injuries.

Stem cell research has drawn opposition because the process of harvesting the cells destroys human embryos, which some liken to an abortion. However, researchers see a medical need for the work, noting that embryonic stem cells can morph into any type of cell.

Georgians retain strong opinions on both sides of the issue, particularly in the political ranks.

Among the top candidates in the governor’s race, Democrat Roy Barnes supports stem cell research and Republican Nathan Deal opposes it.

“I believe our state must embrace the necessity of stem cell and other types of bio-tech research as being essential to the development of a vibrant economy,” Barnes said,

Deal, according to his spokesman Brian Robinson, “supports research that does not include the creation of life for the purpose of destroying it.”

State Representative James Mills, R-Gainesville, who sponsored a bill that allows parents to adopt human embryos, also spoke against the use of embryonic stem cells in research.

“In a case where a child’s life is taken in order for research to be done, I am opposed to that,” he said.

The executive director of Georgia Right to Life, Nancy Stith, said she was shocked to learn the federal government had allowed the trial to proceed. “We are very much heart-broken, disappointed and concerned that it is happening,” she said.

Her organization supports stem cell technologies but is opposed to the research because it “destroys human life.”

“When is it ethical that a human has to die to benefit someone else?” Stith said. “We believe never.”

Stem cell research occurs at several Georgia institutions, including Georgia Tech, Emory University and UGA, and this particular procedure could bring more clinical trials to the area, UGA’s Stice said.

Stice said embryonic stem cells have been tested in animals and he has heard of some clinics worldwide offering human therapies, but this clinical trial marks the first time the work has been approved by a government and carefully evaluated. The Food and Drug Administration gave its approval in July.

In this particular clinical trial, stem cells are converted into nerve cells that are injected into the damaged area of the spinal cord. It is hoped the stem cells will help repair nerve cells around the damaged area, potentially restoring movement.

The Geron Corp. said some paralyzed rats used in research regained the ability to walk, but otherwise was restrained in offering its expectations.

The Atlanta patient needed to be someone who was injured within the past 14 days and was between the ages of 18 to 65. The patient was injured in the middle section of the spine and was paralyzed from the waist down. No other information on the patient was released.

“The surgery went well,” said Krassowska.

The future of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research remains in question. A federal judge ruled in August that President Barack Obama’s expansion of the research violated a federal law prohibiting taxpayer money be used for research that involves the destruction of human embryos. Geron did not receive federal funding for its work.

Company officials said they couldn’t put a timetable on the process.

“We just don’t know,” Krassowska said. “This has never been done before in humans.”

The Associated Press, BBC and the Washington Post contributed to this article.