DeGette renews push for stem cell research

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette visited Craig Hospital on Wednesday to build momentum once again for bipartisan stem cell research legislation.

DeGette, a Denver Democrat, and her new Republican cosponsor, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Penn.), introduced H.R. 2376 on June 24.

Twice, DeGette successfully shepherded stem cell research legislation through Congress only to have former President George W. Bush veto the measures.

DeGette is hoping to win support from new Republicans in the House, then eventually send the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act to President Obama.

Disease doesnt know any partisan boundaries, DeGette said, noting that her bills have won the support of many Republicans in the past.

President Obama has already renewed U.S. government support for stem cell research through a 2009 executive order, but DeGette said legislation is vital so that researchers will be guaranteed long-term support.

Ethical embryonic stem cell research is beginning to bear fruit, DeGette said.

For example, she said research might soon help people like Chris Chappell, a former Craig patient, who became a quadriplegic after a mountain biking accident in the foothills west of Denver in 2000.

A former Wall Street investment banker, Chappell now works for Craig as a liaison to other former patients. He said people with spinal cord injuries are closely watching research that would give them even small improvements. Chappell was racing down hill fast when he turned to see what his buddies were doing behind him. Hell never know for sure whether he hit a rock or a hole, but he flew 50 feet off his bike and broke his neck.

I hit so hard that my chin broke my sternum, he said.

Chappell knew instantly that his injuries were devastating.

It felt like a vat of warm butter spreading over me. I felt like everything was melting away, he said.

Through rehabilitation work at Craig, Chappell has regained some motor function in his arms. He now functions at about 90 percent in his right arm and 80 percent in his left. Immediately after the accident, his fingers were useless. Now he can shake hands, has some sensation in his fingertips and is able to use his hands.

With legislation in Congress, we will get research that will bring nerve regeneration. We can get back function, Chappell said.
Chappell compares stem cell research to heart and lung transplants. Not long ago, patients receiving transplants could expect a short extension of life. Now, a transplant dramatically changes a recipients outlook over the long term.

The magic is in human trials, said Chappell.

While politicians have debated the morality of stem cell research, scientists have moved forward, hoping to bring improvements to patients suffering from an array of medical problems from Alzheimers and multiple sclerosis to spinal cord injuries and cancer.

At Craig, neurosurgeon Scott Falci has been working with researchers for 18 years at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and is now poised to conduct clinical trials on humans that will be among the first in the world to inject stem cells in humans. So far, the Geron Corp. in California has injected stem cells into two patients with spinal cord injuries.

Falci happened to care for a Swedish doctor years ago at Craig and the two hatched plans for a cooperative relationship. Craig doctors have extensive experience working with patients with spinal cord injuries while the Swedish Institute has state-of-the art research facilities.

Falci said the initial trials of his study are set to begin in Sweden in 2012. He is working to win FDA support for follow-up trials that could take place at Craig and various sites around the U.S. Falci said the Swedish facility already has multiple stem cell lines ready to go and Craig has the facilities to store the cells and conduct the trials.

Without question, we will bring it here, Falci said.

Nobody can claim a miracle cure yet, he said. But if it works, all of us hope to see incremental steps. And that can be huge for patients.