stem cells and spinal injury repair

A few days ago I ran across an article discussing some promising results for spinal injury repair

“A week after test rats with 100 percent walking ability suffered neck spinal cord injuries, some received the stem cell treatment. The walking ability of those that didn’t degraded to 38 percent. Treated rats’ ability, however, was restored to 97 percent.”

Embryonic stem cells that trigger growth of new myelin sheaths on the damaged nerves are apparently the key. 

UCI’s therapy utilizes human embryonic stem cells destined to become spinal cord cells called oligodendrocytes. These are the building blocks of myelin, the biological insulation for nerve fibers that’s critical to proper functioning of the central nervous system. When myelin is stripped away through injury or disease, paralysis can occur.

This is interesting on so many levels.  First of all, it highlights the role that the myelin sheath plays in successful nerve function.  I need to understand a bit more about neurology in order to really be able to interpret these results (even at a very high level).  Another interesting facet of the finding were the more holistic effect that the stem cells had, beyond the myelin :

Lead author and doctoral student Jason Sharp, Keirstead and colleagues discovered that the stem cells not only rebuilt myelin but prevented tissue death and triggered nerve fiber regrowth. They also suppressed the immune response, causing an increase in anti-inflammatory molecules.

"The transplant created a healing environment in the spinal cord," said Keirstead, who is co-director of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center and on the faculty of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center …

My selfish interest in this finding is that the vision loss in my left eye is due to damage to my optic nerve, resulting from my bicycle accident in July of 2008.  My best hope for regaining vision in my left eye is for advances in spinal injury treatment, as opposed to therapy to my eye (which was apparently not damaged at all.  Due to a epidural hematoma following the accident, the optic nerve connecting my left eye to the optic chiasm (which connects the optic nerves into the brain) was essentially starved from its necessary bloodflow.  It is effectively dead.  I would need to regain approximately five centimeters worth of nerve function in order to be able to see from my left eye.  This type of injury is similar to typical spinal cord injuries.  My best hope for seeing through my left eye comes with improvements in spinal injury treatment.

An additional personal interest I have in the success of this treatment is the possibility (however remote) that this could also offer hope to people suffering from auto-immune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, or ALD.  In all of these cases, myelin is either killed off by auto-immune response, or it is inhibited from properly forming.  The  thing I can’t discern (because of my lack of depth knowledge of nerve function) is how many of the benefits yielded from the stem cell treatment are due to the regeneration of the myelin verses the “healing environment” phenomena that they also trigger.  It is difficult to tell whether this treatment would benefit both trauma patients and people with autoimmune diseases.

Having experienced and witnessed the effects of neural injury, things like this offer a glimmer of hope.  And at this point, all we can do is hope.

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