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FOX Medical Team

Risky surgery provides hope for ALS patients

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ATLANTA -

All medical procedures come with risks, but an experimental surgery for ALS being tested at Emory University Hospital takes the word risk to a whole new level. So why would patients be eager to face the knife with no guarantees? FOX Medical Team's Beth Galvin says it all comes down to one word: hope.

Researchers at Emory University Hospital have teamed up with the University of Michigan to try something nobody else has done for ALS. They're exposing the riskiest real estate in the body --- the spinal cord -- and injecting in fetal stem cells.

Kathy Lingle of Lawrenceville got the diagnosis in April that she has ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. It will destroy her motor nerve cells, shutting down her muscles.

"With ALS, there is no treatment, there is no cure, and it's only a matter of time until your disease progresses," said Kathy Lingle.

That's why Kathy underwent high-stakes surgery at Emory University where surgeons injected her spinal cord with fetal stem cells.

"But at the end of the day, it's like you know what's going to happen if you don't try anything," Lingle said.  "So this is sort of like: why not?"

There have been others who came first, including John Conley of Hoschton and Ted Harada of McDonough.  
 
"The first patients that we did, we didn't sleep a lot the night before because...nobody had really done this," said neurologist Dr. Jonathan Glass.

Before each transplant, the overnighted stems cells are examined to make sure they're at least 80 percent viable.  They're part of line that came from a fetus aborted in the early 90s. The line has been cultivated and multiplied in a lab by a Maryland company called Neuralstem.
 
Kathy is the first "phase two" patient: she'll receive 10 injections -  2 million cells - into her cervical spinal cord. The motor nerve cells there control our breathing. That's what kills ALS patients -- they can't breathe.

 "So our first goal is to keep people alive longer, and that's why injecting the cervical spinal cord is the most important," said Dr. Nicholas Boulis.  "On the other hand, it's also the most dangerous."

The surgery shows a glimpse of the human body most of us will never even witness. Kathy's spinal cord is exposed, the tissue bright white, as neurosurgeon Nicholas Boulis injected the cells directly into the cord. It looks -- and is -- incredibly risky. But Dr. Glass says he hears from ALS patients all over the world willing to be the next patient on the table.

"This is not magic. This is testing whether stem cells, and specifically these stem cells, can be therapeutic," Glass said.

Two months after her surgery, Kathy Lingle doesn't know if it will help her.

"You never know what's going to happen anyway in life, so this is the chance," Lingle said.

The Emory/Michigan team has been able to show they can do the procedure safely, but it may take years before they'll know if it works.

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