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OHSU stem cell study shows promise in treating strokes

Steven Donovan suffered a stroke on Father's Day, 2014. (KATU)

Steven Donovan just knew something wasn’t right.

It was the morning of Father’s Day, 2014. Donovan's daughter made him strawberry shortcake and as he rose from his easy chair that morning, his field of vision changed – he likened it to having the multi-faceted vision of a fly.

There was a sound like a jet engine in his head, and the images began spinning.

“I remember asking, calling out to my wife for help saying, ‘Help me, I think I'm having a stroke,’” Donovan said.

He was rushed to a Bay Area hospital where he was assigned a doctor from OHSU, who interviewed him via a remote hookup.

Doctors in the Bay Area administered clot-busting drugs, which Donovan said “was (a) critical first step toward treating the stroke.”

Donovan was airlifted to Portland and admitted to OHSU, and in less than 24 hours became part of a clinical trial at OHSU, where doctors were testing the efficacy of stem cell treatments for strokes.

“They go to the brain and they make the brain act more like it's a very young brain,” said Dr. Wayne Clark, a professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine and director of the Oregon Stroke Center at OHSU. “We know that when children have strokes, they can have a full recovery, even with a major stroke. People in their 90s who have a stroke show very little recovery.”

Donovan became part of a global study involving 129 patients. Sixty-five of them were given stem cells grown in bone marrow known as multipotent adult progenitor cells; 61 patients received a placebo. The study was sponsored by the biotech company, Athersys Inc. in Cleveland.

The study, recently published in The Lancet medical journal, found that not only was the treatment safe with no side effects, after one year stroke victims showed improvement over those who received the placebo.

Dr. Clark says once approved by the FDA, stem cell treatment could make a big difference in recovery from strokes.

“If these results are confirmed, this would really open up the number of patients who would be able to receive treatment for their strokes,” Clark told OHSU news.

Two years after his stroke, as part of his recovery, Donovan enrolled in a 10-day mountaineering class on Mount Baker and plans to climb Mount Hood as soon as possible.

"This is truly amazing,'' he said of his recovery. "I was paralyzed and couldn't even move, and even though the mountaineering training was hard, I was able to do it."

Dr. Clark says OHSU will be a part of a second round of trials this summer.

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