By Don C. Reed

People ask: what has the  California stem cell program done with the money entrusted to it? Here is one example.

As the father of a paralyzed young man*, I sit up straight if someone mentions a possible cure for any kind of paralysis.

The most common form of lifelong paralysis is spina bifida, a vicious condition where the unborn baby’s spine does not completely cover itself. That gap in spinal covering brings devastating damage and loss of abilities: paralysis, cognitive malfunction, bowel and bladder problems.

However, after  two decades of struggle, Dr.  Diana Farmer may have brought the world an actual cure.

Diana Farmer began science as a marine biologist, doing research at the famous Woods Hole Institute. On her way to receive an award, she suffered a car accident. This changed her mind, and she decided to work on human biology instead. She became the world’s first woman to perform surgery on a baby, while still inside its mother’s womb. (1)

“She and Aijun Wang received a CIRM grant to co-launch the world’s first human clinical trial using stem cells to treat spina bifida..” (2)

Doctor Farmer also had the help of  fetal surgeon Shinjiro Hiroshi and other leaders in the field.

Surgery alone was not enough, “ …leaving 58% of patients unable to walk independently.”

And without sufficient funding, no amount of expertise could prevail. Thanks to the wisdom of the California voters, funding was available from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) which came through with more than $9 million in research grants toward this goal.

The experts were ready; the funding was in place. How would the procedure work? The baby would be operated on during the pregnancy. The mother’s uterus was opened slightly; a bioengineered mesh is inserted over the gap in the baby’s spinal cord covering. Mesenchymal stem cells (from a donor’s placenta) are placed on the meshing.

The procedure was tried first on animals born with spina bifida:  including sheep and two bulldogs, Spanky and Darla, born with the condition, but which were healed.

Nothing was easy. It took four days for Priya Kumar, the scientist whose team created the stem cell patches, to develop and deliver them to the operating room.

Pregnant Emily Andrews and her child (diagnosed with spina bifida) went under surgery.

The placement of the stem cell patch? It went well.  The wound in the child’s back was sealed. Now the 40 scientists, as well as the parents of the baby could only wait.

On September 20th, 2021, Baby Robbie was born. At 35 weeks and five days, she weighed 5 pounds 10 oz and was 19 inches long. Her baby ankles kicked,  her toes wiggled, and it was a healthy little girl who went home  from the hospital.

The world should know about the incredible success of Dr. Farmer and the California stem cell program; it is something wonderful.

But without the stem cell treatment?

Spina Bifida may cost a family several million dollars, over the patient’s lifetime; the suffering cannot be calculated.

This excruciating condition belongs in the books of the past.

December 20, 2023 UPDATE:

The study is reopening January 15th to treat an additional 28 patients to determine how well the therapy works (a phase 2 trial.

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