‘This is such an important moment’: how stem cell research is transforming medicine

A new documentary shines a light on the breakthroughs that are being made or are close to being made in finding cures to previously incurable diseases.

Ryan Custer was a freshman basketball player at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, when, in April 2017, he jumped into a pool at a house party and shattered his C5 vertebra. Paralyzed from the chest down, Custer entered a clinical trial in Chicago for an experimental stem cell therapy that could restore limited nerve function one centimeter – shoulder shrug, bicep motion, tricep use – at a time.

Cheryl Wiers, a mother in her 40s, saw her aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma return twice, with a vengeance. Chemotherapy wasn’t working, but a clinical trial for a transplant of stem cells at City of Hope medical center in Duarte, California, offered hope.

In San Francisco, Andrew Caldwell, who is HIV-positive, underwent an experimental therapy which transfused his own genetically modified stem cells back into his body; if the modified cells produced enough HIV-resistant fighter cells, known as T-cells, to suppress the virus, the treatment could functionally cure HIV.

All three are vanguards on the slowly unfolding horizon of stem cell therapies, which could offer reprieve from diseases such as certain types of cancers, Type 1 diabetes, lupus and other auto-immune disorders. And all three, along with several others, offer up their emotional, idiosyncratic, and casually radical stories in the film Ending Disease, a collection of intimate portraits of experimental medicine under the culturally fraught, politically vulnerable, and extremely promising umbrella of stem cell research.

Such research has long been a game of potentials – treatments that could cure a host of incurable diseases or conditions, from HIV to certain causes of blindness to quadriplegia; research whose funding could get kneecapped by the whims of political power, treatments that could become available to the masses but are limited to select clinical trial groups. Ending Disease, which followed several trial participants between 2016 and 2019, takes its name from the farthest reaches of said potential: “we are on the cusp of a tremendous number of cures,” said director Joe Gantz.

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