By: Jean Johnson for Medtech1
The 26-year-old beauty in the swimming pool with Southern California sunlight sparkling on the turquoise water captures attention instantly. In sunglasses with the black straps of her swimsuit cutting across her shapely shoulders and her dark hair shinning in the sun, Erica Nader looks as though she might be working on her tan. At least until you see the wheelchair she’s sitting in and the wide ramp with the stainless steel hand bar that leads down into the therapy pool.
In 2001, a car accident in which the air bag hit Nader full force in the chest left her paralyzed from her arms down. The diagnosis: a C6 injury, Asia-A style. “The grimmest diagnosis you can get is Asia-A,” said Nader. Asia-A refers to the American Spinal Cord Injury Association (ASIA) designation of severe injuries that are “complete with no motor or sensory function preserved in the sacral segments.”
The United States government may be mired in a politico-religious maze of questions concerning embryonic stem cell research, but Portugal has moved ahead, transplanting stem cells from patients’ nasal passages to damaged spinal cord areas. For 26-year-old Nader, that’s been a blessing she’s taken and run with.
A wheelchair-bound life dependent on others was anathema to Nader. She and her father, an executive with Southfield’s Kenmar Corporation determined the possible benefits from the Portuguese experimental stem cell surgery outweighed the potential risks. So in March 2003, after a year and a half of paralysis, Nader flew to Lisbon for the five-hour procedure that is performed no where else in the world.
Dr. Carlos Lima, chief of the team, and Dr. Pratas Vital, one of the two neurosurgeons involved, say they have performed about three of the surgeries every month since their first test case in July 2001. After cleaning away spinal cord scar tissue at the site of the injury, they introduce olfactory mucosal cells taken from the ridge of the patient’s nose – adult stem cells that like chameleons are able to take on the characteristics of cells in they find themselves adjacent to.
The team is careful to note that the surgery is only part of the complex equation on the road to rehabilitation. Carefully prescribed regimes of physical therapy are required to allow the body to reprogram mobility patterns. “This is a very slow recovery process,” Dr. Lima said. “We thought it would take a year, now we’re thinking it’s at least two years.”
In Nader’s case, she has gone from having no finger movements at all to being able to grab a drink from her water bottle and feed her self. She can also stand and even take some steps on days when everything – bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves, and perhaps the stars – are in alignment.
Nader fine tunes her workouts as she goes along and respects the signals her body sends her. But generally, several hours of daily commitment seem to be what her body requires to keep coming along.
The Lisbon team plans to publish a paper on the results of their work in 2005 so that the global medical community can get a better idea of risk-benefit ratios. For Nader, however, the $48,000 surgery was worth every cent. “This is exactly what I expected. A boost. Not running the Boston Marathon, but a very slow and arduous recovery … a kick start,” she said. “It seems just when I get discouraged, I feel or experience something new.”
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