A sliver of hope shined recently as doctors announce they have succeeding in using stem cells to restore feeling in two patients paralyzed with spinal cord injuries (SCI).
This study, conducted by StemCells Inc. at the Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, was based on an earlier study that used controversial neural stem cells, which have absolute ability to change into any kind of stem cell but are taken from the donated brain tissue of medically aborted fetuses. In these previous tests, the treatment allowed partially paralyzed rats to walk again.
Three patients with recent spinal cord injuries at the chest level participated in the most recent trial, which used the less controversial adult stem cells. The three men had no feeling below the site of the injury. Each patient received 20 million neural stem cells, which were injected at the site of the injury during a ten-minute procedure. The patients stayed in the hospital for a month following the procedure.
Of the three men involved, one felt no change following the procedure, but he suffered no ill effect from the treatment either. The other two had results that surprised even the researchers. They regained some sense of touch and were able to identify when someone was touching them, or when heat was applied.
Knut Olstad–pictured 20 minutes prior to his spinal cord injury and post-SCI–is one of the two patients who experienced changes after the stem cell injections.
“If somebody touched me, I could feel it. I couldn’t feel that before the operation,” Olstad explained.
The patients were tested for motor and sensory function at three and six months after their injections to see whether the stem cells were helping. To verify that they were not recording a placebo affect, researchers sent electrical impulses across the spinal cord to determine if the stimulation they were applying was reaching the brain.
“We actually saw changes which we rather did not expect to see,” Dr. Armin Curt, the lead researcher for the study, said. “These findings support the changes we see are not related to placebo effect.”
StemCells, Inc. realizes the importance of not over-hyping the results of the tests, as many patients with spinal cord injuries have put a lot of hope into stem cell research. The field has been moving forward at a snail’s pace, largely due to the excessive costs involved in the research. The company does not want to give patients false hope.
“To find something that can repair the spinal cord is a huge breakthrough. If we can show that something has changed for the better [as a result of stem cell therapy], that’s fundamental,” Dr. Curt said.