Editor's note: Irv Naylor, renowned in the steeplechasing world as a former top amateur rider and current owner of leading horses, lost the use of his legs and hands in a fall nearly ten years ago. He has made an enthusiastic commitment to stem cell research as the avenue to discover a cure for paralysis. This is his story of his progress.
by Irvin S. Naylor
"God does all things for good and with deliberate purpose."
Was my mother, Ida Mae, right in her ardent belief in this Biblical paraphrase?
My life changed forever about 3:30 p.m. on April 17, 1999. I was riding my good Irish horse, Emerald Action, in the Grand National Timber Steeplechase Stakes at Butler, Maryland. He ran and jumped brilliantly, and was leading as we approached the sixteenth of eighteen fences, when the horse I knew we had to beat, Welterweight, came along side.
I can only assume that Action was distracted by the presence of Welterweight, because the always reliable Action arose to the unbreakable stake-and-bound fence only at the last moment. Then a half ton of horse, traveling at 25 or so miles an hour, came down heavily, throwing me to the right side of my face, and breaking the C5 vertebrae in my neck.
I remember little after the fall–just that I was paralyzed and could move neither my feet nor my legs, my arms nor my hands. It seemed hours before I was transported, first by an ambulance and then a helicopter, to the shock trauma medical unit of the University of Maryland Hospital. You cannot predict life's vicissitudes; you can only prepare. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on being turned face down on a revolving gurney. Lying directly in front of me were both my organ donor commitment card and my living will.
Over the next couple of months, I did regain the use of my arms, but progress ended there. Doctors in both Cleveland and Baltimore operated several times on my hands in the next years. But to little avail.
Upon returning home about July 15, one of my first commercial deeds was to have a hard look at my balance sheet–fine for a 64-year-old entrepreneur who had started his first company in 1961 with a $20,000 loan from his mother (repaid a year later with interest!)–quite frankly, it staggered me. About a third of my worth was in Snow Time, Inc., a three-ski area holding company which I started with the first ski area in 1964; about a third in Cor-Box, a corrugated box company which I started in 1968; about a third in real estate, consisting of a small industrial park and several farming and commercial properties.
I concluded that I should sell one of these about-one-third-each holdings. I loved skiing, especially heli, and the ski business. I knew it better than corrugation, which I developed more as a financial than managerial owner. To sell the real estate would have taken more time than I thought I might have. Therefore, I made the decision to sell Cor-Box and did so in November of 1999. After a tax reservation, I made provision for appropriate legacies and saw, with satisfaction and gratitude, that I still had more than my perceived needs. Over the next four years I sold all of the real estate that I wanted to sell and felt ready to take on the larger challenges I faced.
I turned my interest, instincts, and intellect toward a cure for my paralysis; it wasn't long before my research found stem cells and Advanced Cell Technology, the company which in 2001 cloned the first human embryo. I contacted President Michael West who told me that they were looking for venture capital, so I invited them to my home in York for a meeting with half a dozen of my friends who I thought might be interested; they weren't, as ACT was not yet ripe enough even for venture capital. But I did meet Dr. Jose Cibelli (www.reprogramming.net), their pioneering scientist to whom I took an instant liking and in whose work I became mesmerized. His brilliance was fascinating; his optimism contagious; his charm disarming.
Jose shortly thereafter left ACT, assisting the Bedford Spinal Cord Research Foundation for a short time; but needing a larger platform, he cast his lot with Michigan State University. We stayed in touch. He confided in me that his work at MSU could move faster with more financial resources. President Bush's restriction on embryonic stem cell research was not helpful. I asked Jose to send me a three-year budget and plan; he did and upon my review I told him that I approved the plan but that I would need a 50 percent partner for the budget.
It took us only two weeks to find a suitable partner. After a few days of phone negotiations, a state representative and I agreed that Michigan and I would equally fund Jose's team at a level similar to that at which the National Institute of Health proposals were generally funded. We agreed to the aggressive timeline of three years instead of the usual five.
Jose's first goal was to create DNA-specific embryonic stem cells to someone who could use them to find a cure for paralysis–and guess who wants to be his first guinea pig!
Through a process called "dedifferentiation," Jose and his team were able to convert skin cells back to their embryonic stage. This process allowed for the production of embryonic stem cells without killing an embryo, thus overcoming the objections of those who found the use of human embryos for this purpose morally objectionable. This scientific marvel was publicly eclipsed by another group of scientists weeks before Jose's team were prepared to announce their achievement. Jose was disappointed, but (as was his character), he only worked harder.
The "Michigan Team" is now working with models for human injury. They are currently testing these cells for safety and efficacy. They will continue to perform tests until the level of risk is better understood and considered manageable. For cell therapy, these are uncharted waters.
Even before I met Jose I felt strongly that stem cells would be the only cure within my life horizon; therefore, I had asked a local friend and plastic surgeon to take a punch biopsy from my right inside thigh. I had sent that for cryostorage in California and for scientists there to begin establishing stem cell lines of my skin.
My goal is to have my newly reprogrammed cells injected in the location of my C5/6 injury. But the downsides are serious: death or cancer, (although neither is likely), or a tumor which can probably be excised.
My primary fear is pain. I am always uncomfortable now but have no chronic pain. I have a friend in Baltimore with my exact injury also created from a horseback riding accident and he is in chronic pain. I think of him every day. But fear pales in the face of hope–and my hope is to be the first person with my condition to walk from a wheelchair. And perhaps millions worldwide will follow me from their wheelchairs.
Hopefully, by spring 2009, I will have returned from London or New Delhi or Beijing and will be skiing in the March sunshine on my favorite Aspen slope.
Had Mother been Catholic instead of Lutheran, I suspect by now she would be on the saint's waiting list right behind Mother Theresa. She was the most loving, patient, caring and wholesome woman imaginable. As my sister once said, "She could charm the Devil!" And one of her mantras was that "God does all things for good and with deliberate purpose."
I'm glad she wasn't there to see me break my neck and I'm glad she hasn't seen my struggle since. She joined our deceased relatives in 1983. But was it God's plan that I should break my neck, sell Cor-Box, meet Jose, contribute to his stem cell studies and help with a cure for paralysis? Only God–and now, perhaps Mother–knows the answer to that haunting conundrum.