In April of 2016, a 21 year old man named Kris Boesen became the first person to participate in a small stem cell trial for patients with severe spinal injuries. A car crash had left Boesen, a native of Bakersfield, California, with three crushed vertebrae and almost no feeling below his neck. At the time, the prognosis was grim and doctors believed he would spend the rest of his life as a paraplegic.
Most treatments for serious spinal injuries concentrate on physical therapy to expand the range of any remaining motor skills and prevent further injury, but can't reverse damage already done.
In 2016, as part of an experimental phase 2 clinical trial called SCiStar, researchers injected Boesen with 10 million stem cells. By July of that year, he had recovered the use of his hands to the point where he could use a wheelchair, a computer and cell phone, and could take care of most of his daily living needs on his own.
Charles Liu, director of the USC Neurorestoration Center and lead surgeon of the team, said that this was a very experimental procedure and referred to it as a "study".
"Typically, spinal cord injury patients undergo surgery that stabilizes the spine but generally does very little to restore motor or sensory function. With this study, we are testing a procedure that may improve neurological function, which could mean the difference between being permanently paralyzed and being able to use one's arms and hands. Restoring that level of function could significantly improve the daily lives of patients with severe spinal injuries," Liu explained.
It has been over three years since Boesen received the treatment and he has shown incredible progress during rehabilitation. He has regained some of the feeling in one of his feet and he is able to move his toes and his knees together at the same time.
Boesen hopes that this same treatment can help him walk someday as well.
"All I've wanted from the beginning was a fighting chance.. But if there's an opportunity for me to walk again, then heck yeah! I want to do anything possible to do that," Bosen says.
These types of stem cell treatments are offering new hope to people in similar positions, as more facilities are comfortable attempting the procedure after seeing Boesen's success. Last year, the Mayo Clinic opened up stem cell therapy trials for ten people suffering from traumatic spinal cord injuries.