In the six months since scientists announced they had infused millions of cells made from human embryonic stem cells into a patient, the identity of the recipient has been shrouded in secrecy.
Recently, rumors began circulating in Internet chat rooms that details about the closely guarded experiment were finally about to be revealed.
Now, a 21-year-old Alabama nursing student who was paralyzed from the chest down in a car crash in September has come forward to identify himself as the volunteer.
"I was the first patient," Timothy Atchison of Chatom, Ala., said by telephone Wednesday evening. "I'm doing well."
Atchison, known as T.J. to his family and friends, was a student at the University of South Alabama College of Nursing when his car crashed on Sept. 25, which, Atchison noted, was the birthday of Christopher Reeve, the actor who suffered a devastating spinal cord injury.
After emergency treatment at a regional medical center, Atchison was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord injuries, for rehabilitation. It was there that he agreed 13 days later to let doctors inject more than 2 million cells made from stem cells into his spine, he said.
"I feel really good about everything," Atchison said. "I've got a positive attitude. I'm trying to live life to the fullest right now."
The experiment is the first carefully designed attempt to study an embryonic stem cell therapy. It is seen by supporters and opponents of embryonic stem cell research as potentially pivotal to the future of the research, which proponents say could revolutionize medicine and critics denounce as immoral.
The trial is primarily assessing safety, but doctors are also testing whether the cells restore sensation and movement.
Atchison said he has returned to the Shepherd Center three times for follow-up testing and was scheduled for at least two more visits this year, but he would not discuss whether there was any evidence the therapy was helping.
"It's too early to talk about that. We're just in the early stages right now. It's not at the stage to really know what's going on," he said.