[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/01/23/art.hanskeirstead.jpg caption="Dr. Hans Keirstead is conducting research with human embryonic stem cells."]Thelma Gutierrez
When you first walk into Dr. Hans Keirstead's lab, it looks like any other, microscopes and Petri dishes. But when you take a closer look, you begin to understand the importance of this place.
You see articles on the walls of the team's accomplishments and photos of spinal-cord-injured rats, a series showing the rat dragging its legs, then the rat standing on its hind legs, then one that shows the rat walking again – with its tail in the air. The photos were hard to look at, considering what the rat endured for the study, but they also illustrate what we once considered impossible. That human embryonic stem cells implanted around the injury site of a paralyzed rat could actually restore mobility. Now, the FDA has cleared the way for a drug company to begin clinical trials with severely injured spinal cord patients.
Dr. Keirstead took us to the place where it all began. The incubator room – where he showed us human embryonic stem cells growing in Petri dishes, to be mixed with a cocktail of hormones and chemicals to become spinal cord tissue. To an untrained eye like mine, it looked like smudges on the bottom of my two-year-old daughter's clear apple juice cup. Who would think that could become tissue that would allow the injured rats to walk again?
It's hard to imagine how a person could come up with any of this, let alone see it through. But after spending the afternoon with Hans Keirstead, I began to understand a bit more about the man. He climbed the highest peak in Norway and he told me he's never been afraid of criticism or getting fired. This from a guy who says he knew he wanted to become a scientist – not any scientist, but someone who would work on spinal cord injuries – from age 11. Does he remember that far back? Not all the details, perhaps, but his mother says it's all right there on the pages of the diary he kept as a kid.
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