Rancho Los Amigos partners with USC for groundbreaking stem cell research

DOWNEY −  A groundbreaking stem cell treatment for patients with spinal cord injuries is coming to Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey this year as recent medical trials indicate such therapy can restore key motor function. 

In partnership with the University of Southern California, Rancho Los Amigos is actively recruiting traumatic spinal cord injury patients to participate in a multi-million dollar clinical study, which will further test the efficacy of transplanting stem cells directly into the spinal cord.

"The whole premise of the trail focuses on whether we are satisfied with where we are, working with spinal cord patients," said Dr. Charles Liu, associate chief medical officer and chair of neurosurgery and spine at Rancho Los Amigos. "There are new strategies being explored for rehabilitation that give therapists a better place to start with patients."

While traditional occupational therapy will continue to play a large role in restoring strength and function to patients, Liu said the newest concept gaining momentum is neuro-restoration, which utilizes regenerative treatments like stem cell transplantation. 

"The evidence in smaller studies supports that it works and in certain levels of injury it can bring people back to the level of independence," he said.

According to StemCells, Inc., who is sponsoring the nationwide trial study at 13 hospitals around the U.S., stem cell treatments are already transforming lives.

"We started Phase 2 of the trial in December 2014 with six patients and we were encouraged looking at the results," said Dr. Stephen Huhn, chief medical director and vice president of clinical research at StemCells, Inc. "For the first time ever we're seeing signs of motor movement -- it's been a long time coming."

Liu agrees that it's taken years for a trial like this to happen, but he maintains that initial studies had to first prove the transplants were safe.

"Now that it is broadly considered safe, studies like this need to be done," he said. "And the fact that we were chosen to do it speaks to the partnerships we have at Rancho with key institutions and the reputation we have as one of the best rehabilitation centers in the country."

Ranchos Los Amigos is one of only two sites in California selected for the stem cell trial. The other is the Stanford University-affiliated VA Palo Alto Health Care System facilities in Northern California. 

Nationwide, roughly 50-56 patients, who already have gone through physical rehabilitation, will join the study that will stop recruiting at the end of this year. After transplantation of the stem cells, researchers will monitor the patients for mobility improvements. 

StemCells Inc. expects the medical findings of the study to publish as early as late 2017.

"This is very timely -- a lot of patients need our help," said Liu, who referenced the hospital's $418 million plans to expand and modernize its medical facilities. "With transformative studies like this, we give patients hope and it's wonderful."