UCI Stem Cell Research Tested on First Human

On Friday, Oct. 15, 2010, a patient in Atlanta’s Shepherd Center was injected with human embryonic stem cells by Geron scientists, using a technique invented and developed by Dr. Hans Keirstead, a professor at UC Irvine. This marked the first time a human has ever been treated with such stem cells.

“That was the sweetest thing,” Dr. Keirstead said. “Knowing that one of your treatments has entered the first human, that human life has changed, that lives can be better because of my research – it’s like a desire manifested. Nobody can take that away from me and that keeps me going.”

Dr. Keirstead’s treatment involves manipulating embryonic stem cells to become precursors to certain types of nerve cells, in hopes that they will travel to the site of a recent spinal cord injury and release compounds that will help regenerate damaged nerves. After a spinal cord injury, the myelin around the nerves is damaged and can no longer transmit movement signals. Dr. Keirstead and his lab replicate large quantities of pure embryonic stem cells to replace the damaged myelin, allowing the connection to heal so that the signals can begin transmitting again.

The patient is part of the first phase of a clinical trial to test the safety of these specialized nerve cells. Over the course of the next two years, a total of 10 newly injured and partially paralyzed patients will be injected with increasing amounts of dosage as part of the trial. If the trial should move on to the second and third phases, the treatment will then be tested for efficacy.

A major requirement of this treatment is that the patient must have been injured within two weeks of the injection. According to Dr. Keirstead, any injury longer than that will produce a scar, which would require another strategy entirely, something that he and his team have been working on. So far, research has been going very well and they are on the first steps toward eliminating scars. Once the scars are removed, the manipulated embryonic stem cells could be injected, which would potentially allow patients with a long-term spinal cord injury to walk.

Embryonic stem cells are a key to Dr. Keirstead’s treatment. They differ from adult cells and cord cells in two ways – first, they have the ability to become any cell in the body and are not tissue limited and, more importantly, they amplify better, which means there are unlimited quantities.

However, despite apparent advantages, embryonic stem cells are still met with controversy and aversion fed by the assumption that aborted fetuses are being used.

“People think we’re chopping up babies – we’re not,” Dr. Keirstead said. “We never get stem cells from a fetus. We are using one sperm and one egg, donated by a couple with their consent, which will generate treatments for tens of thousands of people.”

Just recently on campus, Dr. Keirstead’s face appeared with pictures of aborted embryos on a large poster made by anti-abortionists. They believed that he  was killing babies and using their stem cells. Dr. Keirstead believes that the Geron trial will help alleviate these false perceptions.

“Ignorance is not despicable, but it is a sad thing,” Dr. Keirstead said. “I’ve tried to maintain an open door policy to educate and get educated. We’re winning, though — the populous is getting educated and the majority is pro-stem cell research.”

The Geron trial is changing the stem cell field, but its significance doesn’t just lie in the treatment’s effectiveness. Rather, Dr. Keirstead argues that its importance is in the  precedence it sets — the bar has been raised and there is something for researchers around the world to shoot for.

All of this controversy has also given way to numerous opportunities for Dr. Keirstead. He has been to the California Legislature and Capitol Hill various times to talk with Congress and senators about stem cell research. Plus, he has interacted with some of the largest companies in the world and stood in front of hundreds of Catholic priests to discuss the morality of his research.

“I never imagined in the beginning that I would be at the crossroads of government, industry, academia and religion. While it can be a detriment, a pain and troublesome, it also makes my job fun and I get to learn a lot,” Dr. Keirstead said.

This is not the first drug development Dr. Keirstead has to his credit. Along with Thomas Lane, a molecular biology and biochemistry professor at UCI, Dr. Keirstead developed a treatment using antibodies to treat both spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. The treatment is currently in the hands of Bristol-Myers Squibb, a global biopharmaceutical company, and has recently passed phase two of clinical trials.

Many challenges of the stem cell field, which he claims as “fun,” involve funding. Recently, Judge Lamberth reversed Obama’s policy to liberate funds for stem cell research. Although it is restricted to academic institutions and the industry is still flourishing, this was still a devastating blow to the field. However, Dr. Keirstead still has hope for a reversal and he works on bringing clarity through national policy work.

“This is a shameful manipulation of the litigious system  to hold this issue in court and prevent the flow of money. It is crippling the next generation of stem cell researchers,” Dr. Keirstead said. “In the end, however, logic and passion will prevail. Science is irrefutable and the Geron trial is a game-changer that proves stem cells are in the clinic and working.”

Because Judge Lamberth’s ruling only prevents funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to academic research, the work being conducted at Dr.  Keirstead’s lab remains unaffected. The Sue and Bill Gross Hall, where he works, is part of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The state of California  offers stem cell labs another form for funding that is not federal or  restricted, something that many states do not have.

Dr. Keirstead’s lab is a CIRM-funded institute, and he also receives donations and investments from companies, foundations and grants. He spends a lot of time  fundraising for both his own research and companies that take on his treatments.

“I am exceedingly grateful to that community because research goes only as fast as dollars flow,” Dr. Keirstead said. “I know we’ll get there, but I’d like to get there  fast. We can think, deliberate and pontificate, but the main thing is that we need to do. But there is also that delicate balance between diligence and professionalism and  desperate desire.”

And, as if Dr. Keirstead didn’t have enough on his plate with  changing the way we see the central nervous system, he has helped his father, who has been instrumental in his success, start initiatives across Africa. Dr. Keirstead is the director of the UCI Africa Initiative and the vice chancellor of academic development at UDECOM, which, in French, stands for University of  Community Development. They have constructed crucial buildings,  such as polio homes and schools, and, with the generous contribution of Elizabeth and Tom Tierney, recently donated 550 wheelchairs and three tons of multivitamins to help the people there.

“My father is like my best friend. He has taught me that nothing is impossible and it is that mentality that allowed me to pursue the unattainable – a treatment,” Dr. Keirstead said.

As of now, he works with stem cell research, but he does not let himself be limited to just that. Dr. Keirstead also concentrates on the spinal cord because it is more accessible and easy to tell if there is an injury. By studying an injury at different times and how it evolves in the spinal cord, Dr. Keirstead can identify therapeutic targets and can then work on developing a treatment for that target.

“I could do this a few more times, I think,” Dr. Keirstead laughed, referring to how many treatments he will develop during the course of his career.

As for his future? “I’m a helicopter pilot – I got my license about five years ago,” Dr. Keirstead said. “That’s what I really want to do when I grow up.”