Citadel alumnus Dr. Patrick Johnson (right) with Dr. Nick Boulis of Emory

Citadel alumnus pioneering stem cell treatment for ALS

Patrick Johnson, MD, is currently leading the world in stem cell research designed to help people with ALS, a devastating neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain and the spinal cord, causing the loss of voluntary muscles and invariably, death. His experience includes more than 7,000 surgical spine procedures. Johnson also developed innovative, computer- guided and minimally invasive surgical procedures for spinal disorders and has dedicated his entire career to researching and developing new methods of treating spinal illnesses, infections, congenital anomalies and deformities. 

He is the director of the Institute for Spinal Disorders, the director of Education, and the co-director of the Spine Stem Cell Research Program at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and he also holds an appointment with The Spine Center located at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California. Additionally, Johnson serves as the director for the California Association of Neurological Surgeons and the CEO and Chairman of the Board for the Spine Institute Foundation. Previously, he worked as the director of the UCLA Comprehensive Spine Center from 1993 - 2001.

Johnson discussed his work, and his life, upon his induction into The Citadel Academy of Science and Mathematics in March of 2016.

Q. What is the focus of your current research to help people with ALS?

A. ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a uniformly fatal degenerative neurological disorder. Within a few years after diagnosis, the motor nerves within the spinal cord die and the patient gradually becomes paralyzed and will have respiratory failure. We are beginning a study involves injecting stem cells directly into the spinal cord that replaces those cells that essentially nourish the spinal nerves to maintain their health and viability

Q. How far along is your stem cell transplantation research?

A. This particular study is at its beginning stages with regard to actual human patient treatment of ALS. There has been only one prior, and fairly limited ALS study in the last few years at Emory University. We have collaborated with their lead scientists at multiple junctures. Our human trials that are underway now were preceded by several years of “preclinical studies” where I have performed animal surgeries evaluating surgical procedures including delivery and injection techniques, safety studies for dosage of stem cells and any potential adverse side effects that have been highly efficacious

Q. Is anyone else doing work like this?

A. Other than the former study at Emory, ours at Cedars Sinai is the only one of this nature in the world that employs the stem cell technology we are using.

Q. What led you to this point in your work as a neurosurgeon?

A. I have always had an interest in the concept and potential of stem cell technology, which is why I became involved in these clinical trials. I work with an incredible team of stem cell laboratory scientists who are dedicated to creating these unique cells. They prepare the cells, and then I take over as the surgeon-scientist who develops the delivery system and process to transplant them into the human body and to get the patient’s body to accept them.

Q. What about the training and education you received during your time at The Citadel helped prepare you for your career as a world-leading neurosurgeon?

A. Life as a cadet at The Citadel demands the kind of mental and physical endurance that has been an essential asset of my life in becoming and being a neurosurgeon at some of the leading medical institutions in the U.S. The many years of long hours of study and work I have tackled throughout my career share some of the fundamental ideologies and commitments required to be a successful cadet. These work, ethics and leadership skills are something I practice everyday. I am thankful for the unique opportunities The Citadel gave me and for that I owe enormous gratitude that I can never repay.

Q. What advice do you have for young people considering a military college education?

A. The Citadel education you are receivingan education that is truly like none other. The Citadel helps you test your limits and understand your own capabilities, enabling you to achieve goals you never imagined. The friends and classmates with whom you meet these challenges will bond with you for a lifetime, and they will become the leaders in the military, professional careers and industry in our country.

Q. Who has influenced you the most in your lifetime?

A. My father, Dr. Alexander Charles Johnson, graduated with The Citadel Class of 1940. He was a pioneering neurosurgeon who was among the first 200 neurosurgeons ever trained in the U.S. Through my father’s influence I have pioneered a unique part of neurosurgery in the current era.

Q. (In your rare spare time) what are your other passions and interests?

A. In my spare time my wife and my family keep me focused on being a real person. I enjoy riding my horses, working on our home in the Sierra foothills, returning to my roots when I can by visiting my home state of Montana, as well as skiing and traveling the world.

Q. Your advice to young men and women at your alma mater about how to attain personal and professional fulfillment?

A. Always maintain a good sense of humor and enjoy all that you do in life.

Johnson was born and raised in Montana. His father was the first neurosurgeon in the northern Rocky Mountain five-state region. Johnson earned a degree in chemistry with honors at The Citadel in 1978. He attained both his MD and a master’s degree in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology from the Oregon health Sciences University. He was inducted into The Citadel Academy of Science and Mathematics on March 17, 2016. Read more about J. Patrick Johnson, MD, here.

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