Clinical trial hopes to reverse paralysis

In 2012, Don Winspear was attending his son’s wedding when he began to feel a tingling sensation that eventually paralyzed him from the chest down just hours later. He hasn’t taken another step since then, but researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center think they may have a way to reverse his paralysis. Read story

It’s always been my hope that people would not be intimidated by the wheelchair, intimidated by my condition. And would ask me about it.

{SUPER: Don Winspear/UT Southwestern Patient}

Hi. My name is Don Winspear.

What is transverse myelitis? The best way to describe transverse myelitis is that your immune system is typically charged with keeping your body healthy and fighting off all the bad things…and when you get transverse myelitis, it goes crazy and it looks at the spinal cord, and it says, there’s the enemy. Go get it and attack it.

I first found out I had transverse myelitis when I was in North Carolina for my son’s wedding, and I had been feeling some symptoms of tingling in my feet and lower back pain, and it got progressively worse.

December 2012.

It’s kind of odd for me now to look at the wedding photographs…

And I’m looking at myself and I’m thinking this is the time when TM is just going crazy on my spine. (4:11) and later on that evening at about 8 o’clock, that’s when I finally told my wife, I said something is really going wrong here. I’ve got to go to the hospital.

I walked back to the gurney after one of the MRIs and I was rolled back to the holding area where my wife was and this is like 3 o’clock in the morning and I said you know I’m going to close my eyes for a little bit and 30 minutes later, I couldn’t uncross my legs and from then on, the lack of sensation started progressing from my feet…

I don’t scare easily but for the first time in my life, I was really beginning to fear for what was going to happen to me because it kept on coming. It wouldn’t stop. It was just going higher and higher and higher and higher and it didn’t slow down and I was just scared to death. I was just scared to death.

I’m classified as a T4 complete which means beneath here nothing works and I can’t feel anything. I can feel this perfectly, but I can’t feel that at all.

We knew we had to get back to Dallas not only because of UT Southwestern, but this is where we live. This is where our support system was and so as soon as we could and as soon as the doctor would allow it, we hopped on a medivac plane and we got down here.

{SUPER: Benjamin Greenberg, M.D./Associate Professor,/Neurology & Neurotherapeutics}

Every hospital in the U.S. will see rarely patients with transverse myelitis, but there are only two centers set up in the country that focused on bridging the translational research with the basic science divide of understanding this condition and creating new therapies for it, and UT Southwestern is one of those two centers.

As soon as I met Dr. Greenberg, I could tell I was in good hands primarily because of the way he talked about the disease. He made it clear what had happened to my spinal cord and the prognosis for what might happen in the future. He is probably the most optimistic person you will meet on the planet and that’s exactly the type of perspective and attitude that you need in a clinician when you go from walking to being paralyzed in a matter of minutes and you realize your entire life has changed. 

(Greenberg) For years, patients who have had transverse myelitis, a paralyzing condition of the spinal cord, have had one of several fates: either full recovery, moderate recovery or a significant lake of recovery and there are a group of patients within the world who have had inflammation within the spinal cord who have been left paralyzed by the condition.

We’ve had a lot of hope that stem cells could be harnessed to repair the damage that was done in the spinal cord and what this trial will be is the first ever in human trial of a stem cell to directly repair the spinal cord in a transverse myelitis patient.

So we’re very excited about this trial coming up here at Southwestern.

In this trial, this is going to be a one-time injection of the cells into the spinal cord.

So, for our Phase 1 trial, these 9 patients will all be adults. 18 years of age and older. They will be individuals who are more than a year out from their paralyzing event, but no more than 10 years out from the event so somewhere between 1 and 10 years and all of the patients will be non-ambulatory.

Part of this study is to access the risk or surgically implanting cells into a spinal cord and to take people who are fully ambulatory and do the procedure had a higher level or risk than starting with individuals who aren’t walking.

And while the formal portion of the trial will go on for a year, these patients actually agree to be followed for life with check-ins over time to watch for any late onset issues that might raise a safety concern in the future.

If we prove that these cells work and are safe, meaning that they can go into the central nervous system and create new myelin that is of benefit to our patients, then there are multiple patient populations who would benefit from this technology. They include obviously, patients with transverse myelitis, but also patients with multiple sclerosis, neuromyelitis optica, a condition called acute disseminated encephalitis and even children who have genetic conditions that might lead to a lack of normal myelin so once we prove that the cells are safe and that they actually produce the myelin that we want, there’s a whole host of conditions we would consider testing in.

That’s the hope that this would be a one and done therapy.

(Winspear) People from, almost day one, approached me and said ‘Don, go after stem cells. You need to get stem cells. (14:14) They don’t understand that stem cells are not the clinical nirvana that they think they are. To be effective, they have to do three things: One, they have to migrate to where the problem is; two, they have to identify exactly what the problem is; and three, they have to fix the problem.

I’m cautiously optimistic, but absolutely, I am hopeful of what eventually will happen.  We’ll just see how good those little stem cells are.