New stem cell treatment may provide hope for San Ramon Valley HS grad Jake Javier

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SAN RAMON (KTVU) -- There is new hope for the San Ramon Valley High School football player who suffered a paralyzing injury on the eve of his graduation.

The treatment plan for Jake Javier, 18, could open a new frontier in medicine because stem cells are being used in a revolutionary fashion to treat spinal cord injuries.

The Javier family has been eagerly anticipating the day when Jake could begin treatment in a clinical trial that holds great hope as he fights to regain the use of his limbs.

“It’s a huge opportunity and a great blessing we've gotten,” Jake said.

Said Jake’s dad, Jim Javier, a Hayward police officer: “its cutting edge (and) new technology. There are no guarantees with anything but it brings hope.”

The younger Javier had to successfully pass a lengthy list of rigorous medical tests in order to qualify for the innovative stem cell clinical trial.

“We gave him the option to do this,” his mother, Isabelle said. “He indicated that's what he wanted so we are supporting him 100 percent.”

Jake will become just the fifth person in the world to receive 10 million stem cells and only patients with the most severe spinal cord injuries – such as Jake, who have little to no feeling or movement from their chest down – are considered for this experimental procedure.

Physicians say the procedure must be done within 30 days of injury. But Javier’s age, mental and physical conditioning makes him a strong candidate for the treatment approach.

“Full recovery is not realistic but something that would be great is to get my hands back,” he said. “Being able to flex my fingers . . . so I can use my hands fully would be a lot easier.”

His mother said she is grateful her son is a good candidate for the treatment.

“To think that he is the fifth person in the world to receive 10 million cells directly into his spinal cord is surreal and to be given this gift is thanks to the millions of prayers that everyone around our community, outside our community and around the world,” Isabelle Javier said. “We're ecstatic because we feel that it is part of god's plan.”

Dr. Gary Steinberg from Stanford University is one of the neurosurgeons leading the team that will perform the procedure on Jake Javier at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

Steinberg started working on stem cell transplants over 15 years ago. He said results from procedures where adult stem cells have been injected directly into the brains of chronic stroke patients have resulted in encouraging results.

“These are patients we felt would never recover,” Steinberg said. “We thought the circuits were dead but we found out that they're not dead (and) they can be resurrected.”

Asterias, a company in Fremont, is involved the spinal cord trial that Jake is participating in during his treatment.

As part of the procedure, researchers are transplanting living stem cells and engineering them to act like nerve cells with the expectation they will enhance recovery and nurture the damaged areas of Jake’s spinal cord.

 “We are literally programming human stem cells to help patients with a specific disease or injury and then delivering those cells to the source of the problem,” said Steve Cartt, president and CEO of Asterias Biotherapeutics of Fremont. 

Jake’s treatment team hopes the stem cells will help re-establish the connection of signals from Javier’s brain to other parts of his body.

“What we hope here is that we'll see improvement in the upper extremity function in his arms,” Steinberg said. “So that would be a huge benefit for Jake.”

During the procedure, the medical team must carefully open the lining of Jake’s spinal cord.     

“We have a very sophisticated system where we mount it on top of Jake,” said Stanford's Dr. Marco Lee. “It's a frame that allows us to lower a very fine needle containing the stem cells.”

Once doctors have found the injury, they will inject the stem cells.

Said Steinberg: “In a simple sense (we hope) to turn the adult spinal cord, which does not recover very well after an injury, into a neonatal or infant spinal cord, which would recover much better after this kind of an injury.”

Steinberg said if this approach works, it would “totally revolutionize” the treatment of patients with severe spinal cord injury.

“It cannot be understated what a game changer this would be if it works,” Dr. Lee said. “And that's the big if.”

Doctors said they don’t expect to see a noticeable difference in Javier’s conditions for six months to a year if a change is even detected.

If the experimental approach works, it will make a difference for Jake and countless others who suffer devastating spinal cord injuries.

“It's all new stuff,” Javier said. “Just being a part of something so innovative and so new is pretty exciting to see how it works out.”

From KTVU anchor Julie Haener.