CTV News is to be commended for its excellent, even-handed reporting late last week of an exciting but early-
stage clinical trial to test using stem cell injections to treat spinal cord injury.
The Friday report, originating in Calgary where the first North American patient has received the treatment, goes to great lengths to temper hope with the hard reality that a cure for spinal cord injury is many years away.
Reporter Karen Owen cautions that “everyone’s expectations have to be realistic” and features University of Calgary neurosurgeon Dr. John Hurlbert talking about potential small improvements in patients’ quality of life, such as being able to hold a fork or button a shirt.
In other words, no one is raising false hope by suggesting patients might be rising from their wheel chairs and running down hospital halls any time soon.
The CTV website’s also offers an extended interview with Dr. Michael Fehlings, head of the spinal program at Toronto Western Hospital and the lead investigator for the trial at the University of Toronto, who articulately explains why it’s important for the public to hear about this kind of study — even though it’s so early in the game.
“It represents an advance in regenerative medicine technologies from the laboratory into the clinical realm,” Dr. Fehlings says. “This is now a situation where the science has advanced to the stage where as rigorous a regulatory authority as Health Canada now feels the science is at a level where it can be ethically and scientifically studied in man. So this is a big deal in terms of the advance of the science.”
The North American trial builds on work already done in Europe where nine patients have undergone the treatment with no apparent adverse effects and some small gains observed. In essence, the researchers inject neural stem cells into the spine where there may be some intact nerve fibres to stimulate regrowth insulating layers called myelin. The goal is to restore electrical conduction along the spinal cord to restore muscle strength and sensation.
This is good news. It gives hope to the more than 85,000 Canadians who live with spinal cord injury. But it doesn’t set them up for disappointment by giving them hype.