Health & Medicine

SLO High grad was nearly paralyzed in a cliff dive. Now, he’s a groundbreaking scientist

Samuel Sances was a 16-year-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 a 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.

Innovative research

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Samuel Sances, a 2005 San Luis Obispo High School graduate, is now a Cedars-Sinai stem cell biology researcher whose work was featured as part of January 2019 cover story in National Geographic magazine on the future of medicine. Cedars-Sinai

Sances’ research involves 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 man-made, 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.”

How the chips are used

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

The research team, led by Clive Svendsen, director of Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors 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 would potentially 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.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.