Wondering if there’s a stem cell treatment for SCI?
Stem cells are being researched worldwide because their dynamic properties could potentially treat a lot of different conditions.
But what makes them so special? Let’s start from the basics.
What Are Stem Cells?
Think back to when you were a kid and your possibilities were endless. You could become a dancer, doctor, or even the president.
That’s what stem cells are like. They can become almost any other type of body cell.
Let’s say your parents send you to a science school. Chances are, you’re going to make a career out of science because that’s what your environment exposes you to.
Stem cells work the same way. They are heavily influenced by their environment.
The goal of injecting stem cells into your spinal cord is to influence them to regenerate damaged tissues.
What Kind of Stem Cells Are Used for SCI?
Embryonic stem cells are ideal for regenerative therapy because they can become so many different cell types.
However, there’s an ethical component to using embryonic stem cells because they come from early embryos. Also, they’re more likely to form tumors than adult stem cells.
This had led to considerable interest in using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) instead.
MSCs are a type of adult stem cell that can turn into bone, fat, muscle, or cartilage cells.
They exist in nearly all tissues and are easily extractable from many sources in the body like bone marrow and umbilical cords.
Benefits of Using MSCs for Recovery from Spinal Cord Injury
MSCs help reduce inflammation and tend to migrate towards sites with damaged tissues to promote regeneration.
They’re able to regulate immune responses, which makes them less likely to be rejected by the body.
Research on animal models suggests that “MSCs can form functional myelin during transplantation into the demyelinated spinal cord.”
What is myelin? To get a better idea, think about your phone charger. After lots of use, the cord starts to wear and the wires show, right? Myelin is like the coating that protects the wires.
The myelin sheath protects axons (the signal carriers) and when you injure your spinal cord, the axons become exposed and don’t work properly. Remyelination can help promote axon regrowth.
MSCs express a variety of factors that assist with the growth of neural tissue, reestablishment of blood supply, and anti-inflammatory processes.
MSC stem cell treatment for SCI has led to significant improvements in:
- locomotor function
- sensory function
- pain reduction
- bladder/ bowel control
Obstacles in Stem Cell Research
Earlier, we mentioned how MSCs tend to migrate toward damaged tissue sites; however, it has been revealed that many MSCs fail to reach injury sites. An understanding of the migratory mechanisms of MSCs is still largely unknown.
Other obstacles include the hostile microenvironment. After spinal cord injury, a bunch of triggers go off in an attempt to stabilize the environment. This leads to the death of many cells.
To get rid of all the dead, toxic substances, a purification process occurs and things start to settle. Then, glial scar tissues form around a void cavity, which basically just takes up space and prevents axon regrowth.
In the end, you’re left with neural cell death, scarring, and cavitation.
The spinal cord is extremely complex and this is an extremely simplified version of what happens. All these factors make it very difficult for stem cells to repair damaged spinal cord tissues.
Does Timing Affect Stem Cell Treatment for SCI?
So while your spinal cord is trying to repair itself, is there a good time to interfere?
There are 4 different phases of spinal cord injury:
- Acute: 0-48 hours after injury
- Subacute: 2 -14 days after injury
- Intermediate: 2 weeks-6 months after injury
- Chronic: 6+ months after injury
Stem cell treatment has been most effective in the subacute and intermediate stages of spinal cord injury.
By the chronic phase, a cavity/ cyst forms, surrounded by glial scar tissues. The cavity is a huge barrier to axon regeneration.
A 2016 study found that bone marrow MSC transplants led to improved motor recovery in rats with SCI by preventing cavity formation.
Can Stem Cell Treatment Be Used for Complete SCI Recovery?
It definitely seems like most spinal cord injury treatments focus on recovery from incomplete SCI.
This can be discouraging for complete spinal cord injury patients, but stem cell treatment might provide a hopeful solution!
This case study tested single intravenous administration of BMNCs and multiple intrathecal MSC implantations on a patient with complete SCI.
The patient’s ASIA score went from AIS A-AIS C/D within 2 years! She regained significant sensation in her spine from level T1 to L3/4.
Refer to this article on incomplete SCI for an easy overview of the ASIA impairment scale and levels of the spine.
These results appear very promising but still need further development on a larger scale.
Stem Cell Treatment for SCI Is Still a Work in Progress
There’s a lot of hype surrounding stem cell treatment for SCI and all sorts of different conditions.
Lots of hope and expectations surround stem cell research, but it’s still a work in progress.
The spinal cord is extremely complex and doesn’t heal the same way the rest of the body does. A lot of mechanisms underlying SCI treatment have yet to be understood.
Just remember that good things take time to develop and researchers are definitely going in the right direction with stem cell research.