“The skepticism of reason and the optimism of will.”
That’s what Argentina’s socialist politician Jorge Rivas — probably the world’s only quadriplegic legislator — says of the breakthrough surgery he underwent in Cuba last year that’s allowed him to slowly regain some of his faculties.
The stem cell procedure, together with sophisticated computer software to communicate similar to that used by Stephen Hawking, have allowed him to go on working as one of Argentina’s national deputies and to run for—and win—a bid for reelection last year.
A young and promising new politician when he was attacked in November 2007 during a robbery in Buenos Aires, Rivas’s life changed dramatically. He was left paralyzed and severely brain-damaged and it seemed that his promising career in government was over.
But the socialist politician opted to hope for recovery, turning to Cuba for a radical stem cell procedure that had previously been used to repair hearts damaged by heart disease as well as damaged limbs, but had never been attempted with neurological injuries.
In the procedure, stem cells taken from Rivas’s own bone marrow—called mesenchymal stem cells—were injected via a catheter into his femoral artery, from where they made their way to the damaged part of his brain.
Mesenchymal stem cells, or MSCs, are multipotent stem cells that can proliferate into a variety of cell types—mainly cells of the muscle, bone, tendons, ligaments, adipose tissue and fibroblasts—to repair damaged tissue.
“Just five years ago, Rivas could not walk, speak or even swallow his own food after being beaten senseless during a robbery,” reports Tara Cleary in a 2011 video report for Reuters.
“But after unprecedented stem cell surgery, he is slowly regaining some of his faculties. He can now chew his food and move his head but relies on sophisticated computer software to communicate.”
The communications software, created by Argentine company HadaSoft, has also been instrumental in getting the legislator back to work.
Rivas employs the software to write and to talk, and his gaze controls the position of the mouse, which he uses to call up programs. HadaSoft is giving the software—free or charge—to anyone who needs it.
Hope for spinal cord injury victims
Meanwhile, his doctors in Cuba are closely watching Rivas’s recovery.
The national deputy, whose legislation has repeatedly been focused on the full enjoyment of human rights, as well as controlling government abuses and improving the quality of democracy, says he is hopeful that the surgery will work.
Communicating in Spanish through his computer, he tells Cleary: “I am going to give you a Marxist answer: I have the skepticism of reason and the optimism of will and I hope (this surgery) is going to help me as well as other people who are in similar situations to me.”
Indeed, Rivas is only one of two million people worldwide—about 230,000 in the United States—who are spinal cord victims, crippled and made paraplegic, tetraplegic or quadriplegic by an event outside of their control: violence or a car accident. About 11,000 new injuries occur in the US each year.
Stricter implementation of car and sports safety measures have slashed the rates of spinal cord injuries from motor vehicle crashes and sports. But violence like the beating perpetrated against the Argentine lawmaker, is the second top cause of spinal cord injuries in the US—and a growing cause worldwide.
The severe crippling is more tragic because more than half of these injuries happen to young people between the ages 16 and 30.
Expanding mesenchymal stem cell uses
In an interview last year, Cuban surgeon Dr. Jorge Trainini tells Reuters he is pleasantly surprised at his patient’s partial recovery—but cautious about prospects.
“We will have to see what happens case by case. This is not like waving a magician’s wand, or holy water,” he says.
Since 2008, mesenchymal stem cells have been successfully used in a number of procedures to heal damage caused by heart attack.
In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Authority approved the ground-breaking cardiac trial of doctors from Columbia, Maryland that involved administering bone-marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells to about 200 patients directly after they suffered a heart attack to prevent fibrotic scars.
Stem cells were taken from young healthy volunteers and were delivered to patients through an intravenous drip from one to eight days after a heart attack.
That same year, doctors at the University of Bristol started injecting stem cells collected from the bone marrow of heart patients’ into scars left by coronary bypass operations and magnetic resonance imaging showed that this reduced scarring.
Since then, a number of studies, cited on the U.S. National Institutes of Health, have shown to be successful in repairing heart damage.
Studies have also found it possible to rebuild broken bones by seeding scaffold with mesenchymal stem cells.
But the procedure the Argentine lawmaker underwent seems to be the first time that with mesenchymal stem cells have helped with a disease of the nerves.
Is it safe?
In fact, only last month, one of the world’s experts on stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries warned that none of the so-called stem cell “treatments” for people with stem cell injury in the world today have been proven safe or effective.
“There are no stem cell treatments in the world today that have been fully tested in all stages of clinical trials,” said Prof. Alan Mackay-Sim, Director of Australia’s National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research. Dr. Mackay is the world’s top expert on stem cell treatment for SCI and the first to try olfactory ensheathing cells on people with SCI.
The stem cell scientist urged people with spinal cord injuries not to waste their money on any of the so-called treatments being conducted in several countries, including China, Russia, Brazil and India.
“Such treatments are not based on scientifically proven evidence that stem cells make a difference, partially or wholly, which means risks and benefits remain unproven,” the professor said in an interview with S. Vaidya Nathan published on Jan. 11 in the online Indian news site, The Hindu.
But whether or not it’s the unprecedented stem cell procedure or his own will power that’s making Rivas better—that has yet to be proven.
Still, with the second life in Argentine politics the surgery’s afforded him, Rivas seems to be doing only good:
Instead of blaming the one who caused his crippling, the lawmaker says:
“I think it is important to work on the causes of violence, which to my understanding has its roots in social inequality. We need to put all our energy into efforts to construct more equal and egalitarian societies. We can fall into oppressive solutions, because it is a problem with multiple causes.”
When he returned to work in 2009, 17 months after he was beaten, representatives of every stripe gave him a standing ovation, beat the railings and chanted his name, “Jorge! Jorge! Jorge!”
A 2009 CNN report said, “As pieces of paper rained down from the hall’s upper levels,” and some of his fellow lawmakers were brought to tears by the will and spirit of this brave man.
“When he was not being embraced, kissed, patted and embraced some more, Rivas, wearing a dark suit, smiled broadly and nodded vigorously,” CNN reports.
“He must know how to adapt to all kinds of difficulties to be able to do what he did today,” CNN quotes Rep. Ariel Basteiro, also a member of Argentina’s Socialist Party, as saying.