A team of doctors at the University of Calgary has, for the first time in North America, successfully performed a stem cell transplant in a spinal cord injury patient, a procedure that could offer a glimmer of hope to patients whose injuries have long been considered untreatable.

The doctors injected the neural stem cells into the spine of a 29-year-old paraplegic, who will now be monitored to determine whether implanting those cells is safe.

Later studies will look at whether it is possible to regenerate new tissue and repair the man’s injury.

“That is the goal, a cure,” the University of Calgary’s Dr. Steven Casha, who performed the procedure on Wednesday, told CTV News.

“Stem cells have the potential to recreate lost tissue,” he added, although that remains to be proven in humans with spinal cord injuries. The answer, he said, “is a long way away.”

The transplant is part of an ongoing clinical trial being conducted by StemCells Inc., which harvested the stem cells from the nervous system of a fetus. The company holds a patent on the cells.

Data from three patients in Europe who have already undergone a transplant suggests the procedure is safe.

“We have not been seeing significant complications  or adverse events and there have been a couple of patients who have made very small gains in function that appear to be hopeful and that is very interesting,” Dr. Michael Fehlings, head of the spinal program at Toronto Western Hospital and the lead investigator for the trial at the University of Toronto, told CTV.

Fehlings cautioned that the results are very preliminary.

“I think it is important for people with spinal cord injuries to know that there is potential hope on the horizon, that there are efforts underway right now to move the field forward,” he said.

“Truthfully, it is going to be years before we actually know the results.”

StemCells, Inc. has nine patients currently enrolled in the study, and plans to enroll 12 others who are paralyzed from the chest down.

Patients are being enrolled at the University of Calgary, the University of Toronto and at Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland.

More than 85,000 Canadians have suffered some form of spinal cord injury, with 4,000 new cases every year. Estimates peg lifetime medical costs for these patients anywhere from $1.5 million to $3 million.

While stem-cell research has largely been conducted in animals, the results have been promising and scientists are hoping to expand their studies to include human subjects.

Because stem cells can grow into any type of tissue, stem-cell therapy is seen as having the potential to solve a variety of medical problems, from regenerating scarred heart tissue to repairing severed spinal cords.

With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip