Nearly par­a­lyzed in cliff dive, SLO grad now is a ground­break­ing sci­en­tist

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY NICK WIL­SON

Sa­muel Sances was a 16year-old self-pro­fessed “adren­a­line junky” when he made the du­bi­ous de­ci­sion to jump about 85 feet from a cliff into the Santa Ynez River.

A wind gust blew the then San Luis Obispo High School stu­dent off course on the way down, putting him on a dan­ger­ous path of hit­ting rocks be­low the sur­face. Fly­ing through the air, he curled him­self into a can­non­ball po­si­tion, and then smacked the wa­ter so hard it broke the L2 ver­te­bra in his back — leav­ing him tem­po­rar­ily par­a­lyzed from the waist down.

On the way to the hos­pi­tal in Santa Bar­bara, Sances re­calls over­hear­ing a doc­tor say he’ll “never walk again.”

But he cred­its the physi­cians at Cot­tage Hos­pi­tal who didn’t im­me­di­ately put him un­der the knife to re­pair his back.

“I at­tribute my suc­cess­ful heal­ing to the for­ward think­ing of the Cot­tage Hos­pi­tal doc­tors,” Sances said. “Their phi­los­o­phy was to let the body heal it­self. That ex­pe­ri­ence gave me an ex­po­sure to know that there’s a lot to be learned from health care.”

His body re­gained limited move­ment within a few days with the non-sur­gi­cal ap­proach. Within a few months, he was on a snow­board tear­ing down slopes, though “against doc­tors’ or­ders,” he said.

Sances is now ded­i­cat­ing his ca­reer to help­ing those who are dis­abled and dis­eased — hav­ing re­ceived a sense of what it would have been like to be im­mo­bi­lized — us­ing new med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy to study stem cells, the body’s raw ma­te­ri­als from which all other cells with spe­cific func­tions, such as the brain or liver, are gen­er­ated.

Sances, 31, a 2005 grad­u­ate of SLO High, is now an able-bod­ied, post­doc­toral fel­low at Cedars-Si­nai in Los An­ge­les.

His re­search was fea­tured as part of Jan­uary 2019 cover story on the fu­ture of medicine fea­tured in Na­tional Ge­o­graphic magazine. It could find ways to cure or treat dis­eases such as Lou Gehrig’s Dis­ease (ALS), Alzheimer’s and Parkin­son’s — among oth­ers.

us­ing copies of pa­tients’ cells, taken from stem cells, and plac­ing them on small tis­sue chip de­vices, re­sem­bling the size and shape of a flash drive, that al­lows for blood and brain tis­sue to be com­part­men­tal­ized, mim­ick­ing the body’s func­tions.

Tis­sue chips, which model the struc­ture and func­tion of hu­man tis­sue, pro­vide the hous­ing for hu­man cells on man­made, mini plates.

Sci­en­tists then ap­ply dif­fer­ent med­i­ca­tions to ob­serve the re­ac­tions of var­i­ous drugs to the cells — the idea be­ing that those tests will bring re­lief, and maybe cures to peo­ple with de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tions.

Sances’ pas­sion for sci­ence was sparked at a young age, and con­tin­ued through his school years.

As a young stu­dent in Avila Beach, Sances cu­rated a sci­ence and tech­ni­cal fair event at­tended by stu­dents from other lo­cal schools, he re­calls.

Later, it was the doc­tors who helped save him from a pos­si­ble life of pain and im­mo­bil­ity, who en­light­ened him to the heal­ing power of medicine.

Then, as an un­der­grad­u­ate at San Diego State Univer­sity, he was blown away by ob­serv­ing un­der a mi­cro­scope the pul­sa­tion of car­diac stem cells that beat just as a heart beats.

“I couldn’t be hap­pier,” Sances said. “At first, I felt as though I fell into this. But then I re­al­ized I’ve been gear­ing to­ward this all along, go­ing back to my days at Belle­vue-Santa Fe Char­ter School in Avila Beach.”


Inside the chips pro­duced by the com­pany Em­u­late, Inc., of Bos­ton, which makes the biotech- nol­ogy used by CedarsSi­nai, the re­search cen­ter has cre­ated tis­sues that in­clude in­testi­nal lin­ings and spinal cords. CedarsSi­nai owns owns a mi­nor­ity stock in­ter­est in Em­u­late.

The re­search team, led by Clive Svend­sen, di­rec­tor of Cedars-Si­nai Re­gen­er­a­tive Medicine In­sti­tute, can en­gi­neer an adult’s skin or blood cells into an em­bry­onic state, and then make cells of any or­gan.

For ex­am­ple, to study Parkin­son’s, they can make the part of the brain that dies in Parkin­son’s pa­tients, Sances said.

“We can cre­ate a brain chip or a spinal cord chip,” Sances said. “We’re study­ing ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome and can look at po­ten­tial ways to cure bowel dis­or­der. On the chip, we can test drugs all night long.”

That pre­vents pa­tients from hav­ing to suf­fer through a va­ri­ety of treat­ments that are in­ef­fec­tive or cause side ef­fects. It takes about three to four months for the sci­en­tists to start test­ing cells drawn from the body on the chips.

The work on the po­ten­tial treat­ments us­ing Em­u­late’s tech­nol­ogy is about three years old, mak­ing it rel­a­tively new, Sances said.

His vi­sion is that one day all pa­tients will have a blank slate cell frozen and stored to be able to re­move and study for med­i­cal pur­poses if needed, a de­vel­op­ment that’s likely 20 years out, he said. He be­lieves the fu­ture is bright for break­throughs.

“I feel like the next dis­cov­ery is right around the cor­ner,” Sances said. “My dream is for this tech­nol­ogy to touch many lives.”


Re­search by Sa­muel Sances was fea­tured as part of the Jan­uary 2019 cover story on the fu­ture of medicine in Na­tional Ge­o­graphic.

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