DISEASE-A-WEEK CHALLENGE #3:  The California Stem Cell Program  versus Vascular Disease

By Don C. Reed

In the late 1960’s, Olympic weightlifting was my life. I trained at Pennsylvania’s York Barbell Club, where modern lifting essentially began, and wrote for their magazine, STRENGTH AND HEALTH.  In those days, everybody who was anybody in lifting came to York, and I had the privilege of meeting many of our sport’s greatest champions.

One of America’s legendary weightlifters was Steve Stanko, who in 1941 became the first man to total 1,000 pounds in the three-lift combination of press (310), snatch (310) and clean and jerk (380).

A vascular (circulatory) condition called phlebitis ended Stanko’s competitive lifting career.  He never complained, but I saw him in the locker room once, and had to gasp.  His legs were covered with dark blue lines, pencil-thick swollen arteries. I asked him if it hurt, and he laughed and said:


For the iron-willed Stanko, vascular disease meant changing from lifting to bodybuilding—in which he also excelled, becoming Mr. Universe—but for others, far more terrible consequences await.

One of these conditions is  Critical Limb Ischemia (CLI), hardening of the arteries.

“…hardening of the arteries in the legs…may be present  in as much as 20% of the population. In around two million Americans… it (may)  result in amputation due to wounds that refuse to heal….”

Right now, surgery is the main defense against CLI. Angioplasty (balloons pushed into the arteries) may nudge the blockage in the “hardened” arteries aside,  or cut it with little knives, or freeze it with helium. Stents are also used, tiny tunnels around the blockage.

But nearly half the operations do not really work. Amputation is still required, and even that may not save the patient from untimely death. Sometimes there are too many clogged veins; or the patients is so sick he/she dare not risk the operation.

With the aging of our society, and the increasing numbers of diabetics at risk of limb amputations, CLI is an all too common threat. My diabetic cousin had to have two toes amputated, when they turned black from loss of circulation.

Could there be a stem cell weapon?  California and Spain hope to find out.

The groups of John Laird and Jan Nolta of the University of California at Davis are working with Immaculada Herrera of the Hospital Universitario Reina Sofia in Cordoba, Andalucia, Spain.

How will they fight this terrifying condition?

A growth factor (VEGF, Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor, like veggie-F) could help the body grow new arteries.

VEGF by itself will apparently not do the job: first because it does not last long in the body, and second because it may not go where it is needed.

But what if we had a microscopic “emergency vehicle”, which would seek out the trouble and go there?

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) act like that.  Put into the body, MSCs head to where the trouble is– in this case the blockages in arteries and veins.

Add growth factor (VEGF) to the mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) and you have MSC/VEGF— the  “paramedic van”, self-directing and full of good medicine!

As the scientists put it,  in their progress report:

“We have discovered that mesenchymal stem cells…are remarkably effective delivery vehicles, moving robustly through the tissue and infusing therapeutic molecules into damaged cells they contact.

“…Injections of MSC…have rapidly restored blood flow to the limbs of rodents who had zero circulation in one leg.

“…We are combining the stem cell and growth factor approaches… engineer(ing) human MSC (from a donor’s bone marrow)…to produce high levels of VEGF.

“We propose to use these MSCs as “nature’s own paramedic system”, arming them with VEGF to enhance…blood vessel growth.”

Scientists from California have visited the lab in Spain, and vice-versa, making sure the joint effort will be the same, when the human trials begin. The only difference will be how the MSC/VEGF will be given: Spain is using an injection into the blood; UC Davis will give the shot into the muscle.

Multiple safety and efficacy experiments have been carried out, with each side bearing its own costs.  If all goes well, the scientists intend to:

“1. Complete … pre-clinical studies within the next few months.

“2. Move toward (FDA) regulatory approval.

“3. Initiate the planned clinical (human) trial in 2016.”

As Dr. Jan Nolta of UC Davis noted in a personal email: “None of this would have happened without CIRM. (CIRM is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, our state stem cell program, begun by Proposition 71.)

“Thanks in large part to… the California taxpayers who had voted for Prop 71, stem cell therapies are changing the way medicine is done, and also how it is taught to new medical students.

“In the future, when the mysteries of stem cell therapies are more fully understood, patients may not have to endure such relatively barbaric surgical techniques as limb amputation.”

Steve Stanko would have been proud.

Don C. Reed is the author of a forthcoming book, STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond: How Ordinary People Can Fight Back Against  the Crushing Burden of Chronic Disease—with a Posthumous Forward by Christopher Reeve


Follow the Disease-a-Week series at www.stemcellbattles.net.

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