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Stem cell therapy reverses paralysis

19 September 2016
Appeared in BioNews 869

An experimental stem cell therapy appears to have restored some feeling and limb control in five patients paralysed by spinal cord injuries.

The small-scale trial by Asterias Biotherapeutics has surpassed expectations after all five patients showed improvements in arm, hands and finger control within three months of receiving the treatment. One patient even regained some use of his arms and hands, meaning that he could feed himself and operate a phone and a wheelchair.

'Until now, there have been no new treatment options for the 17,000 new spinal cord injuries that happen each year. We may be on the verge of making a major breakthrough after decades of attempts,' said Professor Richard G. Fessler, a neurological surgeon at Rush University Medical Center and a principal investigator for the study.

The treatment involved injecting 10 million stem cells (known as AST-OPC1 cells) into the spinal cord of recently paralysed patients. AST-OPC1 cells are made by converting embryonic stem cells into oligodendrocyte progenitor (OPC) cells, which are found in the brain and spinal cord. OPC cells have been shown in studies to support the function and growth of nerve cells. Each patient was treated within two to four weeks after becoming paralysed, before scar tissue could form.

The patients were assessed using the ISNCSCI measure of motor level function. Each motor level is linked to the level of assistance and care that the patient requires. An improvement of at least two levels means a patient can may perform daily activities such as feeding, dressing and bathing.

At three months into the trial, one patient had improved two motor levels on both sides, while two patients reached a two-level improvement on at least one side of their body. Of the four patients who reached three months by this point, and all had improved at least one motor level on one side. No negative side effects have been reported so far.

The researchers had not expected to present their results until January 2017, but Stephen Cartt, chief executive of Asterias Biotherapeutics which developed the cells used in the therapy, told Reuters that 'we came out early with the data because it was so compelling'. The results were presented at the 55th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society meeting in Vienna last week.

The research remains at an early stage, and the researchers acknowledge that it is a very small study. The existing patients will continue to be monitored for a year to confirm the long-term safety and effectiveness of the treatment. A new trial has been approved which will use a dose of 20 million stem cells and involve more patients.

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