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Human stem cells help paraplegic rats walk again

27 November 2017

By Ewa Zotow

Appeared in BioNews 928

Paraplegic rats were able to walk after being treated with human stem cells. This is the first time lower body movement has been restored after an animal's spinal cord has been completely severed.

After three weeks, sensation returned to the rats' limbs and their spinal cord had started to heal. The use of stem cells may be an effective new method to treat spinal injuries, suggests a study on the findings, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

'In the past, scientists have managed to rehabilitate and injured spinal cord using stem cells. But this is the first time that stem cells restored feeling in limbs and complex motor ability, including fast walking, in a significant way, within only a few weeks,' study author Professor Shulamit Levenberg from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University told Haaretz

The research team used human stem cells from the lining of the mouth and implanted them in a specially designed supporting structure that aided the development and integration of the cells into the rats' nervous system. Three weeks after the treatment, 42 percent of the treated rats showed significant improvement in the ability to walk, balance and support their own weight. Three-quarters had improved sensation in their lower body. 

The treated rats also showed signs of healing in the spinal cord. The connectivity between the brain and the hind limbs was partially restored. None of the control paraplegic rats, which received no treatment, showed any signs of improvement.

Spinal cord injury is one of the leading causes of paralysis and in many cases it is irreversible. Despite substantial progress in the recent years in the treatment of spinal damage, no therapy has been able to restore a completely severed spinal cord. 

However, not all rats benefited from the treatment, with some showing no signs of recovery after receiving the stem cell therapy. Further research is needed to understand the regeneration, and why it worked for some animals and not others. 

The potential of this method for the treatment of people with paraplegia is likely very far off in the future. However, the technique presented here may be a useful starting point in this line of research. 

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