Rich Lajara suffered a recreational accident at a river in 2011 that left him paralyzed from the mid-torso down. Within two weeks he was a patient in the world’s first embryonic stem cell human clinical trial. In fact, he was California’s first embryonic stem cell patient in the very first clinical trial funded by CIRM. It was a Phase 1 trial, meaning the goal was just to prove the treatment was safe. Because the therapy dose was minimal there was no expectation of recovery. But it was successful in achieving its objective: it was safe for use in people, and therefore able to advance to further testing in clinical trials. This clinical trial includes a 15-year follow-up commitment.
Since 2015, Rich has been very involved in-patient advocacy for spinal cord injury (SCI) as a Patient Ambassador for the non-profit Americans for Cures (AFC). AFC’s mission is to advocate for stem cell research and therapy development, with the aim to improve the lives of patients and their families suffering from chronic disease and injury. AFC played a central part in laying the groundwork for getting Proposition 14 passed in 2020 – the California ballot initiative that refunded CIRM – helping to develop the elements and language for the new initiative and to create the message needed to inform the public about the value of CIRM and Proposition 14. In the years leading up to the ballot initiative, Rich had shared his story and experience as a stem cell clinical trial participant on multiple platforms to an array of audiences such as scientists, doctors, researchers, college students, the general public, and others suffering from SCI. His story and experience were an important voice to be heard as Proposition 14 was developed and California voters were asked to provide additional funds for CIRM to continue funding research.
Rich also works fulltime and has worked for an electric utility company for the past 15 years. He has recently taken on a new role as an Electric Distribution Operator. Even after his injury, he still has a strong passion for outdoor recreational activities such as adaptive mountain bike riding, paddle boarding, four wheeling, and adaptive skiing to name a few.