AUSTIN (KXAN) — A controversial medical treatment is one step closer to becoming law in Texas. One state lawmaker made a last-ditch effort to save the bill from dying last week. The bill would allow doctors to perform certain stem cell treatments, a possible cure for many patients who are forced to travel out of the country for it.
A.J. Coldiron is headed to Panama later this month and vacation is the last thing on his mind. Instead, the 19-year-old paraplegic, who was injured in a 2015 car crash, is going for a second round of adult stem cell treatment.
In October, he and his mother traveled to the Central American country for the first round of treatment. They stayed for more than a month, but doctors say with more rounds of the experimental, $40,000 treatment, A.J. may walk again.
“About the third week in is when I got some hamstring function,” Coldiron said. “And I can do about 30 pounds to hold my legs up.”
But if some state lawmakers have their way, A.J. and his mother, Estephania LeBaron Papanicolaou, may not have to travel so far for that treatment.
Last week, members of the Texas House unanimously voted to pass House Bill 810. It allows adult stem cell research and treatment for some injuries, like the one A.J. has — and certain chronic illnesses, like multiple sclerosis.
The bill almost failed, narrowly missing state lawmakers’ midnight deadline.
Republican State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, led the push to keep the bill alive. It’s a personal fight for him. His wife Lydia injured her spine 28 years ago in a diving accident.
“I went through emotions,” Springer said. “I was texting my wife. She was yelling about, ‘Why are these guys doing this? Don’t they know what they’re stopping?'”
Springer said the bill would open the door for more cutting-edge research to happen in the state. “What it would do is allow someone like my wife — but probably someone more recently injured — to receive treatment right here in Texas,” Springer said. “Today, if she went to Panama, she would have to go for six weeks and live in Panama.”
So, where do these adult stem cells come from? Springer said only from banked umbilical cord blood and sometimes from the patients themselves. And success isn’t guaranteed because the science is so new and always changing.
Lawmakers stress that HB 810 only allows adult — not embryonic — stem cells during treatment. For a better understanding of the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells, researchers at The National Institutes of Health say the primary role of adult stem cells is to “maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.” And embryonic stem cells are cells, usually developed in a lab, that have not yet developed into a specialized cell type.
Even if patients like A.J. don’t walk again, his mother said his doctors are already seeing small, but significant growth in his body. A.J.’s bladder and bones are improving, she said.
“There are other things his body may heal and repair,” said Papanicolaou. “So, any amount of healing is better than where we are now.”
The bill now heads to the Senate. If it passes and Gov. Greg Abbott signs it, patients in Texas can start receiving treatment as soon as Sept. 1.
A.J.’s family and friends have created a Go Fund Me account to pay for the expensive treatment. If you would like to help click this link.