For the first time ever, doctors have successfully used stem cells to promote regeneration of motor neurons in rats. The science is in its infancy, but could one day offer new avenues for treating spinal cord injuries (SCI), according to new findings published in Nature Medicine.
Could Stem Cells Regrow Motor Neurons?
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can grow into specific parts in the body. Stem cell research has produced promising results, but researchers have yet to find a way to use stem cells, or any other method, to regenerate spinal cells.
For the study, researchers implanted embryonic stem cells into rats whose spinal cords had been severed. These neural progenitor cells were designed to develop into spinal cord tissue. These implants helped the spinal cord partially regenerate, producing significant improvements in motor skills in the forelimbs.
To test another stem cell approach, the scientists also tried using human neural stem cells to promote spinal cord growth in rats. This, too, produced improvements, suggesting that more than one stem cell-based approach could combat SCI-related damage.
The study’s authors suggest that further research should look at specific grafting techniques for stem cells, in addition to exploring which specific stem cells can prove most effective for regenerating motor neurons.
What Does Stem Cell Research Mean for SCI Survivors?
Doctors have heretofore not discovered a way to regenerate spinal neurons. This means that, when the spinal cord is damaged in a complete injury, the damage remains permanent -- or mostly permanent, since physical therapy can sometimes aid the spinal cord in working around its injuries.
If the research pans out in humans, it might mean significant opportunities for recovery in people with SCI. The rats did not make a full recovery, though, so patients would likely need to continue exploring other treatment avenues. Further research could yield even more effective strategies, or could shed light on the therapies that most successfully amplify the effects of stem cell grafting.
Is There an SCI Cure on the Horizon?
Rats' bodies are, in many ways, quite similar to human bodies. They have similarly structured spinal cords, and engage in many of the same behavior as humans. Many treatments that originally worked on rats subsequently were effective in humans. Researchers hope this will be one of them.
However, rat and human bodies also have significant differences. Rats also cannot share their subjective experiences, such as whether they are in pain, making them an imperfect tool for predicting outcomes in people. There's much about the spinal cord that researchers simply do not understand. This research is in its preliminary stages, and there is no way to know whether it will work in humans. Any future human trials will require extensive safety testing, and may be quite expensive, demanding significant government or private funding.
Cutting-edge trials usually take many years to become mainstream medical treatments. This specific treatment will require more animal trials first. If those are successful, it could go to the FDA for approval in a trial on humans. That could take several more years, but success could mean an eventual treatment.
An End to Other SCI Treatments?
Even if stems cells eventually prove useful in the fight against SCI, they likely would not replace other treatments. Antibiotics, spinal fusion, decompression, and physical therapy are invaluable in the treatment of SCI.
Stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries simply targets the spinal cord after any immediate risk of infection or death has been prevented. When supplemented with physical therapy, it could become even more powerful, since these treatments help the body learn to work around the injury.
Written by Zawn VillinesZawn Villines is a writer specializing in health and legal journalism. Raised by a lawyer and lobbyist who advocated for spinal cord injury survivors, she is a lifelong advocate for spinal injury victims and their loved ones. You can connect with Zawn on Google+ below.
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