Reviewed by B.Davies
Humans require many different repair and renewal strategies. At the earliest point in life, we need these pathways to grow and develop but in later life, we use these pathways to recover from disease and injury. For this, our bodies activate a unique type of cell known as a stem cell. Stem cells are a special form of cell, as they can make any cell type in the body, and so can provide building blocks for our organs and tissues.
Over the past 20 years, researchers have been trying to harness the power of stem cells to guide damaged nerves in spinal cord injury (SCI) towards repair, or to grow new nerve cells altogether. By doing so, it is hoped that the damage can be undone, and a more effective treatment can be offered to those living with SCI.
Recently, a Californian group led by Dr.Joseph Ciacci, has released an exciting clinical study where, for the first time in humans, four patients had a special preparation of foetal spinal cord stem cells (called Neuralstem) transplanted directly into their spinal cord at the site of injury. After following the patients’ recovery for over two years, they discovered that 3 of the 4 patients had made some improvements. Two patients recovered sensory and motor function, with a third patient showing an improvement in motor activity. Whilst these changes were measured, it is noted that this did not lead to a change in the patient’s quality of life. Importantly, the researchers also found no concerns about the safety or side effect profile of stem cell transplant.
Strategies to repair the spinal cord are sorely needed, and whilst these findings must be treated with significant caution (as there was no group of patients to compare to and the improvements did not reach statistical significance), they are promising as typically for this group of patients, so far down the line after injury, no improvement would be expected.
Much more work is required before this could lead to real world treatments, and we look forward to follow this story.
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