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Photo of one of Dr. Lima's spinal chord injury patients, Susan Fajt.
One of Dr. Lima's spinal chord injury patients, Susan Fajt.
Cynthia Breazeal Innovative Sparks
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Read the complete transcript of this episode, which aired on April 13th, 2004.

Episode 6: Miracle Cell

For people with heart conditions, spinal cord injuries, and a host of incapacitating diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, stem cells offer promising prospects for effective treatments and possible cures. These unique cells are with us throughout our lives and they manufacture and repair the 200 different types of cells that make up the human body. Their use and manipulation as a new medical innovation may be on the verge of revolutionizing medicine. Known as regenerative medicine, the technique seeks to harness this natural ability of the body to renew and heal itself.

Outside the United States, patients are already benefiting from remarkable experimental trials that utilize patients' own stem cells for treatment.
Outside the United States, patients are already benefiting from remarkable experimental trials currently underway that utilize patients' own stem cells for treatment. Early results are already shattering the normal recovery expectations from severe heart attacks and spinal cord injuries. And similar stem cell trials seem poised to get the FDA go-ahead in this country in the not-too-distant future.

"Miracle Cell" goes to the front line of these new procedures. With unprecedented and exclusive access, the program explores the current successes and future potential for stem cell therapy. We meet Dr. Carlos Lima and some of the six American spinal cord injury patients who have traveled to Portugal to undergo his experimental stem cell operation. A neurologist who heads a special spinal cord injury treatment team at the Egas Moniz Hospital in Lisbon, Dr. Lima oversees a group of surgeons in the harvesting of patients' stem cells from their noses. The cells are then transplanted into the sites of the spinal cord breaks.

Discussing their work and the promise that these mysterious, multi-purpose cells offer are leading clinicians and scientists, including Prof. Andreas Zeiher, University of Frankfurt, Germany; Dr. John Martin, Professor of Cardiovascular Science, British Heart Foundation; and Prof. Geoffrey Raisman, National Institute of Medical Research, U.K. We also hear from Dr. Steven Hinderer, Director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan at the Detroit Medical Center, who sent the first handful of American patients to Dr. Lima and is working to bring the spinal treatment to the United States.

"Miracle Cell" travels to Portugal to document on film, for the first time ever, the harvest and transplant operation. The film also tracks the progress of several of Dr. Lima's patients in the ensuing months. For some, improvement has been dramatic. As Dr. Hinderer assesses 19-year-old quadriplegic Laura Dominguez six months after her surgery, he concludes: "I've never seen recovery like this in 25 years of practice ... I can tell my patients they may walk again, rather than saying life from a wheel chair can be good." Two months later, Laura is able stand up on her toes and move her foot on command. Another of Dr. Lima's patients, paraplegic Joy Veron, is seen on the road to recovery after undergoing the treatment last August. Joy's injury is the result of a tragic accident in which she was run over by her SUV in an attempt to stop it from rolling off a cliff with her children inside. She began to experience some sensation in her leg almost immediately after surgery, and through intensive rehabilitation and fierce determination, Joy continues to make dramatic gains.

In Germany, "Miracle Cell" spotlights the remarkable strides being made by heart attack victims following the implanting of their own bone marrow stem cells into their damaged hearts. We follow a patient through the procedure and see how others have made a rapid recovery as the heart seems to regenerate healthy tissue instead of scar tissue. The program also tells the extraordinary story of Michigan teen Dimitri Bonnville, whose heart was punctured during a horrific nail gun accident. Despite a desperate prognosis, he has made a full recovery following stem cell treatment similar to that performed in Germany. His physician, Dr. William O'Neill, Director of Cardiovascular Disease, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Michigan, tells about the decision to go for the stem cell treatment instead of a heart transplant, and how that gamble paid off.

Producer/Director: Frank Simmonds
Producer: Michael Chrisman

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