Each year, tens of thousands of individuals in the US alone are diagnosed with a spinal cord injury. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center
, 17,000 new spinal cord injuries are diagnosed in the United States annually. The average age of injury 42, and most patients are male.
Spinal cord injuries result in the loss of motor control, tissue degeneration and other negative impacts, including high lifetime costs, and a dramatically reduced lifespan due to an increased risk of pneumonia, septicemia, nutritional diseases, mental disorders, and more. Currently, there is no treatment that can restore lost mobility to those afflicted by a spinal cord injury, but there is hope in the form of stem cell treatment and ongoing research into the ways that these cells can be used.
The Most Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries occur in a wide range of ways. However, the most common injuries sustained through automobile and motorcycle accidents. This is followed by acts of violence (physical attacks, weapon-related attacks, and more), accidental falls, and accidents suffered while playing sports. Violent contact sports like football and rugby are two of the most common activities in which individuals might suffer a spinal cord injury, but there are others. The results of a spinal cord injury are generally loss of muscle control, and inability to move muscles, a loss of sensation, and loss of control over bodily systems.
An Overview of Stem Cells
Stem cells have garnered headlines for many years now, but they are still not well understood by many in the public. Essentially, these are the building blocks of all human cells. They are "primitive" cells, and they're found throughout your body. They're present before birth in significant numbers, and remain after birth, through childhood, and into adulthood.
Essentially, stem cells are not any particular type of tissue cell. They're not skin cells, muscle tissue cells, or bone marrow cells. You can think of them as blank slates. With the right type of inducement, they can transform into any other type of cell, from brain cells to liver cells to those found within the spinal cord. They can also work to heal other cells, and can even transform into things like blood vessels and nerve cells.
Current Treatment for Spinal Cord Injuries
The current treatment options for those suffering from a spinal cord injury are limited, to say the least. Surgery may be an option, at least for the repair of severe damage. Extensive rehabilitation is another common treatment option. There are currently no FDA-approved treatment options that use stem cells, although many options are being researched.
The Challenge with Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries are incredibly complex. According to the Neural Stem Cell Institute's Regenerative Research Foundation, there are three primary obstacles to treating a spinal cord injury. These are "loss of neurons, production of an impenetrable glial scar, and loss of key insulating cells called oligodendrocytes."
In most animals, stem cells are responsible for overcoming these issues, and for regenerating damaged cells and tissues. However, in many mammals, including humans, the stem cells located in the spinal cord area are inhibited. An injury to the spinal cord or the surrounding tissue does not activate them the way it does in other animals.
Scientists have discovered that injecting new stem cells into the affected area changes this situation, though.
How Can Stem Cells Help?
Stem cells have been used to help human patients regain mobility and improve their quality of life. There are two ways that stem cells can be introduced to a body. One is to transplant the patient's own stem cells into their spine. Generally, these cells are harvested from fat or bone marrow, and then tested for quality and contamination, before finally being injected. These are called autologous stem cells. However, because they are the same age as the patient, they have lost much of their divisibility, and genetic mutations or exposure to toxins could cause the immune system to react. Also, the stem cells from particular tissue are already there because they "want" to develop into such a tissue. Stem cells from adult fat tissue, even your own, need an extra effort to be something but fat. This may cause development of tumors, especially teratomas.
The second option is to use stem cells from the umbilical cord. These are called allogeneic stem cells because they are not bioidentical to your own, and constitute the preferred approach to stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries. Allogeneic stem cells are energetic due to their youth, and they have an immense potential for divisibility and replication within the body. They are also completely invisible to the immune system, so there are little to no fears about rejection.
Have stem cell treatments for spinal cord injuries been successful? Yes, they have. Stem cells have been tested in mice, but are increasingly being tested on humans. The California Stem Cell Agency's CIRM highlighted the story of a young man who suffered a spinal cord injury who was able to regain the use of his hands and arms after completing stem cell therapy. According to the CIRM, Kris Boesen was the first person in his study group to receive a transplant of 10 million stem cells. It was just two weeks before he showed signs of improvement. Just 90 days after beginning the treatment, Kris had regained significant use of his motor function.
Why Allogeneic Stem Cells?
If allogeneic stem cells are not bioidentical to your own cells, then why would they be the preferred option? There are many different reasons. One of those is that with allogeneic umbilical cord-derived stem cells, there is virtually no chance of cellular rejection after transplant.
It is also easier to assure quality and anti-inflammatory activity with allogeneic stem cells. Using stem cells from another donor also ensures that there is no chance that a patient's stem cells will remain dormant. After all, patients already have their own spinal cord stem cells - they simply remain inactive.
Transplanting energetic allogeneic stem cells ensures activity. Of course, there is no need to administer chemotherapy needed to stimulate bone marrow into producing and then releasing stem cells on its own, which can help patients avoid a host of complications related to chemotherapy.
Ongoing Experimental Treatments and Studies
All stem cell treatments in the US are considered experimental, and there are ongoing studies to ascertain the benefit of stem cells in treating conditions ranging from spinal cord injury to cancer to Alzheimer's disease and more. While the techniques and technology involved are in their infancy, they are already proving invaluable.