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California-based company has begun using human embryonic stem cells

A California-based company has begun using human embryonic stem cells to treat a patient with acute spinal cord injuries in the first authorized test of the technology in the U.S.

The patient was treated Friday at Shepherd Center, Geron Corporation said Monday in a statement. The test is also the first publicly known use of human embryonic stem cells in people.

“The patient was enrolled at Shepherd Center, a 132-bed spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation hospital and clinical research center in Atlanta, Georgia,” Geron said. “Shepherd Center is one of seven potential sites in the United States that may enroll patients in the clinical trial.”

Geron’s stem cells come from human embryos left over from fertility treatments. They have been manipulated so that they have become precursors to certain types of nerve cells. The company hopes that they will travel to the site of a recent spinal cord injury and release compounds that will help the damaged nerves in the cord regenerate.

The Phase I trial is designed to test the safety and tolerability of the therapy in patients with spinal cord injuries that have resulted in loss of mobility or sensation.

“When we started working with human embryonic stem cells in 1999, many predicted that it would be a number of decades before a cell therapy would be approved for human clinical trials,” Geron President and CEO Thomas Okarma said in a statement. The trial represents “a milestone for the field,” he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave Geron the go-ahead to start the study in July after halting it for almost a year over safety concerns.

Embryonic stem cells have been at the center of funding controversies because the research involves destroying the embryos, which some have argued is akin to abortion. But, many researchers consider embryonic stem cells the most versatile types of stem cells, as they can morph into any type of cell. While there are some restrictions on federal funding for stem cell lines for research, Geron is not subject to the restrictions, as it has done all its work with its own funding. (PNA/Xinhua)

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