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Georgia men undergo risky surgery in battle against ALS

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ATLANTA -

Two Georgia men are among those willing to risk everything to try to stop Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, is a disease that gradually shuts down the muscles of the body, until people can no longer breathe.

Ted Harada and John Conley both know they have a progressive disease that is -- so far -- unstoppable. But they've come to believe if there's anything out there that can one day stop ALS, this is it.

Hope is what brought Ted and Michelle Harada to Emory University Hospital.

Ted recently underwent his second experimental surgery. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with ALS. He was 38 with three kids.

"I can remember my doctor sitting across from me, as you are now, and saying, 'I'm sorry, I have no cure. It's a terminal illness. There's nothing you can do and nothing I can do,'" said Ted Harada.

John Conley has been there: same diagnosis, same pre-surgery jitters. Married, with two grown sons, John was 57 in the spring of 2009 when his legs grew wobbly.

"I'd fall two or three times a day and not know why," Conley said.

When Emory ALS specialist Jonathan Glass confirmed why, John decided to fight. That's why he decided to try the experimental surgery.

Almost two dozen ALS patients have been willing to risk everything for the unproven surgery to open up their spinal cord and inject it with fetal stem cells. It determines if the cells can protect the motor nerve cells that allow us to move and breathe.

"So our first goal is to keep people alive longer and that's why injecting the cervical spinal cord is the most important," said Dr. Nicholas Boulis, an Emory neurosurgeon. "On the other hand, it's also the most dangerous."

After Ted's first surgery in his lower spine, the unexpected happened: he got stronger. When his wife pushed on his leg, he could push back.

"And my wife just looked at me wide-eyed and she's like, 'That's not supposed to happen,'" Ted said.

After his second surgery, Ted got stronger again.

"I can't stress enough…is unheard of and unprecedented with this disease," Ted said.

Dr. Glass says it may be the cells or the anti-rejection drugs or something else.

"But we're convinced Ted is better. And not only did he get better after the first surgery, he seemed to get better again after the second surgery," Glass said. "The real question is, ‘Can we reproduce Ted?' I hope we can."

It's been 4.5 years since John Conley's diagnosis and three since the cells were injected into his lower spine. He and Sandy have become grandparents four times since then.

"I get teary-eyed sometimes, I just can't believe that I've lasted this long," Conley said.

John's breathing is still strong, but his upper body is weaker.

"I can't type, I can't raise my arms," Conley said.

John's story is more typical of the other patients. This is only a safety trial, but about six months ago, John said his legs, too, suddenly got  stronger.

"I was able to get up out of this chair and I can walk around the house," Conley said. "I was like a little kid in a candy store, it was the greatest thing that could have happened."

John knows there's no guarantee that the cells can make a difference, but he has hope. For now, hope is enough.

Emory has teamed up with the University of Michigan for this trial. This week, the 21st patient will undergo this surgery in Michigan.

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