New study shows hope for spinal cord repair

New study shows hope for spinal cord repair

A new study using human stem cells in mice is showing promise in finding a way to repair damaged spinal cords.  Reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists injected human stem cells into partially paralyzed mice and found it was able to repair damaged spinal cords and help the injured mice walk again.

According to Aileen Anderson of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of California, Irvine, researchers are on the “cusp of making some big leaps forward.”  Previous research suggested human stem cells can help rodents recover from spinal injuries, but the latest research is a breakthrough.  Scientists have never before shown that human stem cells make connections with the nervous systems of the mice, indicating a possible link to recovery from spinal cord injuries.

In the experiment, UC Irvine researchers used fetal brain stem cells that they injected nine days after injuring the spinal cords of mice.  By using mice, the scientists were able to easily mimic the damage caused to humans in a car or driving accident, making the rodents a good choice to study neurological diseases. 

The researchers found the stem cells migrate up the spinal cord, developing into multiple different neural cell types, including neurons and oligodendrocytes.  Injuries or disease can take away myelin, the nerve fiber coating that is critical in maintaining the nervous system’s electrical conduction, and as a result, sensory or motor deficiencies and sometimes paralysis can be suffered.

The study was able to show the stem cells make connections with the nervous system of the mouse that “could mediate recovery,” Anderson said.  The mice that had been transplanted with human stem cells showed long-term recovery of motor function within four months.  UC Irvine researchers injected their test mice with diphtheria toxin, which kills only human cells and not mouse cells to prove the mice recovered because of human stem cell injections. 

By killing the human stem cells, the researchers eliminated the injured mice’s improved walking ability, which suggested human neural stem cells were the main catalyst for the recovery.  Brian Cummings of UC Irvine, a study co-author, said, “it’s very critical at this stage to do side-by-side comparisons…between different types of cells to see which ones are the most capable [of repairing the spinal damage]”.  The study is significant, according to Itzhak Fischer, chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, because it provides “evidence that human stem cells prepared by this group can integrate with the host tissue and directly participate in the repair process of spinal cord injury.”  

Still, scientists must figure out how to translate findings from animal models to the human body.  Others question whether the study’s results apply to chronic settings since some data suggests it might not be possible.  Major progress has been made in understanding the potential benefits of stem cells for treating injuries of the central nervous system, and many scientists believe smaller discoveries such as this latest study will eventually lead to major breakthroughs in healing spinal cord injury


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