CHATOM, Ala. - When Timothy J. Atchison regained consciousness, he was drenched in blood and pinned in his car on the side of a dark rural road.
"I was just pouring blood," said Atchison, 21, who recoiled in pain when he tried to drag himself through a window of the wrecked Pontiac he had gotten for high-school graduation. "I didn't know if I was going to bleed to death or not."
Then, Atchison realized that his legs felt strangely huge - and completely numb. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
"I was just praying - asking for forgiveness and thanking God for keeping me alive," said Atchison, who was trapped at least an hour before rescuers freed him. "I said, 'From here on out I'm going to live for you and nothing else.' I never got down after that. I figure that's what must have kept me up - God keeping me up."
That sense of destiny propelled Atchison when he faced another shock just seven days later: Doctors asked him to volunteer to be the first person to have an experimental drug made from human-embryonic stem cells injected into his body.
"We were just stunned," said Atchison, who was with his mother and grandfather when researchers approached him. "We were like, 'Woo, really?' We were all just kind of in awe."
Atchison, known to friends and family as T.J., described the events during an interview Tuesday with the Washington Post - his first detailed account since disclosing his carefully guarded identity to the Post. Atchison's story reveals provocative insights into one of the most closely watched medical experiments, including what some may see as an irony: that a treatment condemned on moral and religious grounds is viewed by the first person to pioneer the therapy, and his family, as part of God's plan.
"It wasn't just luck, or chance," said Atchison, who thinks, six months after the treatment, that he may be feeling the first signs that the cells are helping him.
"It was meant to be."
Atchison, whose Sept. 25 crash occurred while visiting home during his second semester at the University of South Alabama College of Nursing, had heard about embryonic stem cells' potentially revolutionary power to morph into almost any tissue in the body, as well as their infamy because days-old embryos are destroyed to get them.
"I didn't know as much about it then as I know now. I did know that stem cells could be used to cure all kinds of things," Atchison said, swiveling in his wheelchair, which like his car and many other belongings is the University of Alabama football team's crimson. "I was thinking like 50 years down the road or something like that."
Raised Baptist in a small town where the main road has more churches than fast-food restaurants, Atchison nonetheless has no moral qualms about launching the first U.S. government-sanctioned attempt to study a treatment using embryonic stem cells in people. The cells implanted into his spine were obtained from embryos being discarded at fertility clinics, he notes.
"It's not life. It's not like they're coming from an aborted fetus or anything like that. They were going to be thrown away," he said. "Once they explained to me where the stem cells were coming from, once I learned that, I was OK with it."
While undergoing surgeries and other treatments to repair his shattered spine, broken collarbone and pinky finger, and nearly severed ear at the University of Alabama Medical Center in Mobile immediately after the accident, Atchison was befriended by the pastor of a local Pentecostal church. When he found out the following week what Atchison had agreed to do, the pastor was uncertain how his community would respond.
"I said, 'This is not going to be popular with some people. You might face death threats. You don't know what the reaction is going to be,' " said Troy Bailey of the Reynolds Holiness Church later in the day.
Bailey realized he had to sort out his own stance, given that some people who, like him, oppose abortion also consider embryonic stem-cell research to be immoral. But Bailey concluded that he too believed the experimental treatment is acceptable because the cells were obtained from embryos that had never been implanted in a woman's womb and so had no chance of developing into a fetus.
"I am adamantly against abortion in any form. It did cause me some searching and researching biblically what is the proper answer," he said. "I don't really see a baby's life was destroyed for this to take place."
Bailey announced his conclusion to his parish the Sunday after Atchison's Oct. 8 procedure and invited his congregation to come to him with any objections. But he said he has never heard any complaints from anyone in town, which has rallied around Atchison and his family, including building a ramp around his mother's house and laying a concrete walkway for his wheelchair.
Bailey then devoted three weeks of Sunday school lessons to stem cells and issues he thought were related, such as birth-control pills and "designer babies."
"I'm definitely not wanting to encourage harvesting embryos for all kinds of crazy reasons," Bailey said. "And that definitely led some people to have some hesitancy about some of these things."
Critics raise concerns
If Atchison's role in the research has not provoked any overt objections among his friends, family, neighbors and fellow churchgoers, the study that he began has prompted denunciations from critics who oppose the research on moral grounds as well as an intense debate among scientists, bioethicists and others who support the research.
Some worry that not enough basic studies and tests in animals were done before injecting cells into recently paralyzed patients. Many fret the cells could be harmful, with the biggest dangers being that they will cause tumors or tortuous pain. Still others wonder whether patients who are still struggling to come to terms with their devastating injury can make that kind of risky decision just two weeks after such a trauma.
Many proponents fear that if something goes wrong - or even if the cells fail to show any sign of helping patients - it could be a major blow for the field at a time when federal funding for the research is under attack in court and in Congress.
Atchison dismissed such concerns and praised his care at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he was transferred for rehabilitation. Shepherd is one of seven centers recruited by the Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., which is sponsoring the trial to test the cells on 10 patients.
Three days after arriving at Shepherd, doctors invited Atchison to undergo tests to see if he met the study's strict criteria.
Waiting for results
After the procedure, Atchison spent three months undergoing the center's standard program, learning how to care for himself. But he had to keep his involvement in the study secret, even when a friend in rehab wished aloud he could get stem cells so he could walk again.
"I kind of wanted to tell him, 'Hey, you know it could be closer than you think? Because it's already happened,' " he said. "I just didn't want him to feel upset about me getting it or anything like that. I didn't want him to think I was going to be able to walk because of this."
And although his doctors have stressed that they gave him a very low dose primarily to look for any adverse side effects, Atchison believes the cells may already be helping him. In studies involving rats, partially paralyzed animals that received the cells regained the ability to move.
In recent weeks, after months of feeling or being able to move nothing below his chest, Atchison said he has begun to get some very slight sensation: He can feel relief when he lifts a bowling ball off his lap and discern discomfort when he pulls on hairs on some parts of his legs. He has also strengthened his abdomen.
"That's something that just happened recently. It's just slowly progressed more and more," he said, noting that rodents that received the cells did not start to regain movement until nine months after being treated.
Geron would not discuss Atchison's case. The company is keeping the results of its tests on Atchison and other study subjects confidential for now.
"It's driving everybody crazy not to know," said James Shepherd, who founded the Shepherd Center. "At this point it's way too early to have a feel if it's going well or if he's getting anything back. The whole community and the patients in chairs are just curious and banging on doors and saying, 'Tell us what's happening.' "
Spinal-cord injury experts stress that patients can regain some sensation and movement on their own, and that it is simply impossible to know whether the cells are helping based on a single subject. Advocates for spinal-cord injury patients, while thrilled by the study, worry about raising false hope.
"I caution people: Don't expect miracles that these patients are going to automatically jump out of their wheelchairs and run all over the place," said Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
Atchison's accident occurred on the birthday of Reeve, the actor who was paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident and advocated for stem-cell research.
Several times a week, Atchison exercises his legs with a special stationary bike that delivers electrical stimulation to his muscles, and pulls himself to a standing position on another contraption to retrain his frame to stand erect. He learned to drive a car he can operate with his hands and has resumed hunting and fishing. He plans to return to school in August.
"I pray about it every night. I think I'll be able to walk again. I think it will help me. I'll keep riding my bike and exercising and one day I'll be able to walk again," he said. "You want to let the stem cells see what they can do."
After demonstrating how he mounts an all-terrain vehicle and operates his specially equipped Chevy Cruze, Atchison wheeled himself around the side of the house. His year-old Yorkie, Lilly, shot out of the door and scurried over to greet him, running slightly askew.
She, too, had been in a car accident and had recovered except for one lame rear paw.
by Rob Stein Washington Post Apr. 17, 2011 12:00 AM
Recipient: Stem-cell therapy is God's will
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