It's a chilling thought. In the coming year, 130,000 people worldwide will suffer spinal-cord injuries—in a car crash, perhaps, or a fall. More than 90 percent of them will endure at least partial paralysis. There is no cure. But after a decade of hype and controversy over research on embryonic stem cells—cells that could, among other things, potentially repair injured spinal cords—the world's first clinical trial is about to begin. As early as this month, the first of 10 newly injured Americans, paralyzed from the waist down, will become participants in a study to assess the safety of a conservative, low-dose treatment. If all goes well, researchers will have taken a promising step toward a goal that once would have been considered a miracle—to help the lame walk.
The trial signals a new energy permeating the field of stem-cell research. More than 3,000 scientists recently met in Barcelona for the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, compared with just 600 researchers five years ago. Money from major pharmaceutical companies is following the advances. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore, now a partner in the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has thrown his weight behind the research. In April, the firm joined with Highland Capital Partners to invest $20 million in iZumi Bio (now iPierian), a startup firm working on stem-cell therapies.