The California Cure The Miracle Worker: Dr. Hans Keirstead

When Dr. Hans Keirstead entered the field of spinal-cord research—something he arbitrarily decided when he was 11—he told himself he wouldn’t retire until he found a treatment. Now that this 42-year-old codirector of the UCI Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center has developed, along with his team, the world’s first embryonic stem-cell–based treatment effective in making paralyzed rats walk again, the neuroscientist can start checking out retirement communities.

Keirstead first published his findings in 2005 and this January received approval from the FDA to begin working with the Menlo Park, California–based biopharmaceutical company Geron Corp. on the first series of clinical trials of the treatment in patients with acute, recent spinal-cord injuries.

Kierstadt’s treatment is easier to understand if you think of the spinal cord as a piece of electrical wire. After a spinal-cord injury and in some diseases, the “insulation” (myelin) around the “wires” (nerves) that transmit movement signals is damaged. The UCI team developed the world’s first method of replicating large quantities of high-purity tissue from embryonic stem cells to replace this myelin and allow the connection to heal and the signals to begin transmitting again.

That’s a bright ray of hope for the nearly 450,000 people in U.S. who live with spinal-cord injuries, with some 10,000 to 12,000 new people added to their ranks each year. Keirstead takes this pain personally. “That unbridled enthusiasm and crazy excitement [of finding treatments] becomes dulled when you’re sitting with patients around you whose lives are really, really rough,” he says.

Keirstead, who cites the late actor Christopher Reeve as a supporter and friend, is pressing on. He is currently working on a new treatment for patients with longer-term spinal-cord injuries. He says going through the FDA approval process has given him the experience he needs to move his research forward more quickly. In addition, the Obama administration’s easing of restrictions on stem-cell research in March has opened vast new research and funding resources.

“I have never been more excited about the prospects for treating spinal-cord injury,” he says. “A decade ago, [what we were taught] about the central nervous system’s ability to repair was virtually zero. Here, we have these wonderful demonstrations that we were wrong and that there’s tremendous hope.” —Gwen Moran