USC researchers announce breakthrough treating spinal injuries

Keck Medical Center of USC
Keck Medical Center of USC
Jon Nalick, Keck Medicine of USC

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USC researchers have announced what could be a breakthrough in treating people with spinal injuries — through stem cell therapy. It's still just a clinical trial and many years away from FDA approval, but results in the case of one young man has been nothing short of spectacular.

When people sustain spinal injuries, they don't usually recover from paralysis or get back movement that's lost. But Kris Boesen, 21, of Bakersfield did.

Kris Boesen of Bakersfield works his smart phone, something the 21-year-old once paralyzed from the neck down wasn't able to until he received a breakthrough stem cell treatment from USC's Keck Medical Center.
Kris Boesen of Bakersfield works his smart phone, something the 21-year-old once paralyzed from the neck down wasn't able to until he received a breakthrough stem cell treatment from USC's Keck Medical Center.
Keck Medical Center at USC

And for that, his family credits an experimental stem cell treatment he received through Keck Medical Center of USC.

"They thought he was going to be totally from the head on down paralyzed," said his dad, Rod Boesen.

A car accident had left his son with crushed vertebrae and no movement below his neck. Now he says seeing his son feed himself, or even just twist the top off a soda bottle is miraculous.

"That's never happened," Rod Boesen said of the stem cell procedure results. "They've never been able to do that until right now."

The stem cells actually repair the myelin sheath around the nerves, said Charles Liu, the neurosurgeon leading the USC research.

His goal is a little more realistic than trying to repair the entire spine, he said, but it's no less dramatic – Liu is trying to restore function by an increase of two full neurologic levels.

"Two functional levels could mean the difference between using your hands or not," Liu said.

That's where Kris Boesen is now, with a range of movement in his hands and arms – and he has started moving his toes now, too. His dad said Kris hopes to eventually walk again.

These results so far, Liu cautions, are extremely preliminary. Only five people nationwide have been treated so far, and that's an extremely tiny sample size. But, he adds, the initial results are striking, and hold out hope for spinal-injury victims that didn't exist before.