Spinal cord injuries are associated with a permanent loss of movement and physical sensations due to nerve damage. However, treatment options are limited to physical rehabilitation programmes. In the trial, patients treated with intravenous infusion of their own stem cells showed significant improvement in key functions, such as the ability to walk or use their hands.
'The idea that we may be able to restore function after injury to the brain and spinal cord using the patient's own stem cells has intrigued us for years,' said senior co-author Professor Stephen Waxman of Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut. 'Now we have a hint, in humans, that it may be possible.'
Researchers from Yale and Sapporo Medical University in Japan used mesenchymal stem cells which can differentiate into different types of cells. By intravenously infusing the patients' own stem cells, derived from their bone marrow, this therapy was expected to affect several areas of the central nervous system, including the brain and blood vessels.
The results of the phase 2 clinical trial involving 13 patients who had sustained non-penetrating spinal cord injuries were published in the journal of Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery. All but one of the patients demonstrated motor and sensory improvements after six months of infusion. In addition, no substantial side effects were reported.
'Similar results with stem cells in patients with stroke increases our confidence that this approach may be clinically useful,' said senior co-author Professor Jeffery Kocsis from Yale.
The authors acknowledge the limitations of the results, considering the small size of the clinical trial, which was also unblinded and uncontrolled. Additional clinical trials will be required to confirm the results of this preliminary trial.