Doctors have injected neural stem cells into the spines of paralysed patients in a medical intervention that represents a step forward in treating paralysis. The trial has successfully helped patients recover feeling in previously unresponsive parts of their bodies.
New Scientist reports that a small trial involving three partially paralysed patients saw injections of 20 million neural stem cells administered directly into their spinal cords. The stem cells were harvested from donated foetal brain tissue, and the patients received immunosuppressive drugs to minimise the risk of rejection.
Before treatment, all of the patients could feel nothing below their chests. Six months on, two of them can now feel touch and heat as far down as their belly button. While that may not sound impressive, it's a massive leap forward in the treatment of paralysis. Stephen Huhn, one of the researchers, told New Scientist:
"The fact we've seen responses to light touch, heat and electrical impulses so far down in two of the patients is very unexpected. They're really close to normal in those areas now in their sensitivity."
These three patients are the first of 12 to undergo the therapy, and the positive results will see Huhn and his colleagues push on with the tests. The results were presented yesterday in London at the annual meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society.
While it's not clear exactly how the stem cells improve sensitivity, the researchers suggest that they may be helping to restore myelin insulation of damaged nerves, or perhaps causing existing nerves to function better.
It's too early to tell for sure whether the treatment could represent a standalone treatment for paralysis. It does, however, offer hope that in the future — perhaps when combined with drugs and physical therapy — the treatment could help make paralysis a temporary rather than permanent condition. [New Scientist]