"I thought I was in a science fiction movie," he recalled over the phone from his home in Norway. And even as he's slowly been able to make sense of what
happened to him, his life since then has, in a way, remained in the realm of the abnormal.
In 1998, when human embryonic stem cells were first isolated, we anticipated a "rush of medical advances," as The New York Times put it. That promise -- along with all of the ensuing controversy -- is still alive, has already become reality in select cases -- for example, with bone marrow
transplantations -- and still has plans to live up to all of the expectations that have been set for it.
"The question now," the Times wrote then, "is what use can be made of the potentially awesome power to rejuvenate human cells." After 15
years, there are a lot of people waiting for a miracle, for the day cell-based therapy gives back what's been taken from them.
People blind from macular degeneration, like Hilton, who's blind "on paper only" but hopes that research will forge ahead to help not just him, but
everyone suffering from degenerative diseases.
People with spinal cord injuries, like Olstad, who is still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he had just turned his life around when life, in
turn, put him in a wheelchair.
People losing their minds to Alzheimer's, and their bodies to Parkinson's and ALS. People with heart disease, diabetes, and cancer; children with genetic brain
disorders who aren't expected to live to see their tenth birthday.
Stem cells were only quietly on the radar in 2012. In October, the Nobel Prize was awarded to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, who are lauded for laying
the foundation of regenerative medicine, for work done, in Gurdon's case, in 1962, and, for Yamanaka, more recently in 2006. In the labs, those on the
front lines of stem cell research have seen important results: the first preliminary data on a clinical trial at UCLA with
embryonic stem cells was published at the end of January, funded by the company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). In September, the first data from neural
stem cells being used in human spinal cord patients in a hospital in Zurich was presented by StemCells, Inc, and in October, the company published data from a second trial in children with a fatal disorder affected their brains'
myelin production -- the first trial, which was also the first to receive
FDA approval to transplant neural stem cells into children, took place in 2006.
The findings come from two different areas of the field: ACT works with what are known as pluripotent stem cells, which can be made to turn into
any cell in the body. StemCells, Inc., on the other hand, uses tissue-specific, or "adult," stem cells, which have already become what they are -- in this
case, brain tissue.