Jockey Rene Douglas lives in hope
Rene Douglas remembers one of his greatest challenges as a jockey. At the 1996 Belmont Stakes, he willed Editor's Note over the finish line because the horse couldn't do so himself. Yet since Douglas' devastating spill in 2009, trying to coax that kind of heroic effort from his own body has proved much tougher. Now when he falls out of his wheelchair, his wife, Natalia, has to scoop him up.Just getting around on a daily basis is as big a victory for Douglas these days as winning a Breeders' Cup race, which he did in 2006. In the hopes of finding the finish line in this difficult race, the Douglases have grown exponentially desperate. "To find the cure, I'll pay whatever I have to pay, even if I have to milk a goat in the highest hills I can find in stiletto heels. To see him walk again, it's priceless," Natalia has said.
In these early years of stem cell research, the lack of uniform standards opens doors to risky and potentially fraudulent practices. Patients, many from the United States, pay these clinics up to $5,000 per week for miracle treatments. No organization has the authority to unify standards of stem cell clinics around the world, just as general practitioners operate somewhat differently from country to country."There should be ethical protections involved, and you shouldn't be charging people tremendous amounts of money to try this," said Larry Goldstein, director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program and a member of the International Society of Stem Cell Research. The Wild West element is one part of the stem cell controversy. The other part lies in the source of the cells. Using stem cells from unborn embryos, of course, flings open deeply held right-to-life issues. There are also smaller but significant issues in using stem cells taken from the umbilical cords of recently born babies. Douglas' treatment involves neither embryos nor umbilical cords. His stem cells come from his bone marrow, and after harvesting, the stem cells are injected into his spinal column. "We're using our own cells. We're not killing babies," he said. The FDA mandates that cells taken from one spot in the body and reinjected elsewhere in the same person's body require the same rigorous, clinical trials as newly developed drugs. "You can take the heart or kidney out of someone and put it in another person [which is not FDA-controlled]," SCI's Riordan said. "You can take someone's bone marrow out, freeze it and put it back in as bone marrow -- that's exempt. But you can't inject the stem cells [from the marrow] into the spinal cord. It has to be bone marrow for bone marrow." With that kind of stem cell treatment unavailable in the U.S., Douglas has made three pilgrimages to Panama City -- in August 2010, November 2010 and February 2011. It took more than a year for the wiry jockey to recover sufficiently from the initial trauma and be strong enough to undergo the stem cell treatments. Each two- to three-week stay at SCI begins with the stem cell injection right into his spine. "I'm excited when the needle comes," Douglas said of each of his stays at the clinic. "It's exciting. I don't get nervous, I get anxious. I used to get more nervous before I jumped on a horse because you see all the owners and they're telling you how to ride the horse. I just wanted to get on the horse, and then it's just you and the horse." Still looking muscular and athletic, Douglas has not experienced the headaches or other immediate aftereffects of the treatment. Jockeys are used to keeping their weight down, so Douglas is well programmed to deal with the grueling rehab regimen that accompanies the stem cell injections. He uses a kind of elliptical machine where his arms force his legs to move. He also will soon start biofeedback, where electrodes on his skin send impulses to the brain in the hope of stimulating it once again to send messages to the legs. Before leaving for his third treatment, Douglas said that he could move a toe on command ever so slightly. Sometimes, he felt he could move a lower body part, even though it did not actually move. Douglas said, "It's a big step when you feel like you can move something." Dr. Warren Sherman, of New York Presbyterian, said early research shows reasons for hope.
"There's very exciting work that's gone on in small animals, [when] embryonic stem cells [from an animal's heart] are placed into a different environment and culture, are being used to help repair spinal cord," he said.
Despite a lack of tangible results, Douglas remains steadfastly optimistic. "I know we made the right choice, even if it doesn't work for me," he said.That, of course, is the main question. Will this story end with the triumphant image of Douglas climbing up on a horse again?
Barry Abrams is an ESPN television feature producer.
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