Glasgow-based scientists have announced plans to trial a pioneering stem cell therapy for treating stroke patients later this year. The researchers hope that the therapy, which involves injecting embryonic stem cell (ES cells) into the brain, may help to reverse the symptoms of stroke, including mobility problems and reduced mental function.
Four groups of three stroke patients will be recruited for the trial. All four groups will receive an initial injection of two million stem cells and, over the course of two years, three out of four of the groups will have their dose slowly increased to 20 million cells, which the researchers believe could be enough to kick-start regeneration of the damaged brain tissue.
Dr Keith Muir, the consultant leading the trial at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, said the trial was a 'world first'. 'If it works, as it has done in animal model systems, it may allow new nerve cells to grow or regeneration of existing cells and actual recovery of function in patients who would not otherwise be able to regain function,' he said.
The primary focus of the trial is to assess safety, however the researchers are optimistic that some of the patients may benefit from the therapy. Around two thirds of stroke patient suffer some kind of permanent brain damage, which can not be treated through rehabilitation schemes. The trial gives hope to the 250,000 people in the UK living with severe disabilities caused by strokes.
'You can reorganise the brain, you can help that reorganisation with physiotherapy, but you cannot cause new nerve cells to grow. The hope with stem cell therapy is that by putting in new cells and new tissue that you can further improve on that recovery,' Dr Muir told the BBC.
The trial has been fiercely opposed by pro-life groups, who believe that an embryo has equivalent moral status to a child or adult human, because the stem cells involved are obtained from aborted embryos. ReNeuron, the stem cell research company funding the trial, were refused a licence to carry out the trail in the US two years ago, where ES cell research has remained highly restricted under the Bush administration. Having satisfied the UK regulators - the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency - they now have approval for the trial in Britain.