Scientists working out of Yale University and Japan’s Sapporo Medical University have been able to successfully repair spinal cord injuries using stem cells. Using intravenous injections to deliver mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) pulled from the patient’s own bone marrow, scientists report that there was “substantial improvements in key functions — such as ability to walk, or to use their hands” in more than half of the subjects of the study. Senior study authors and Yale professors Jeffery D. Kocsis and Stephen G. Waxman, who worked with researchers at Sapporo Medical University in Japan, have many miles to go on this journey but told reporters that they are optimistic about the future. “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. Now we have a hint, in humans, that it may be possible.”
The researchers’ hopes are pragmatic. Trying to bring back some function, even if it is just a little, to the lives of those people who have suffered a paralyzing trauma can make a world of difference in the quality of their lives. As Waxman told the Yale School of Medicine in 2009, “We won’t be making somebody into a ballet dancer, but imagine telling somebody who’s confined to a wheelchair that they could take ten labored steps—enough to get from their wheelchair into a car. Or giving somebody who has no function below the shoulders just enough function in their spinal cord so they can grasp and use a pencil.”
This is work that professors of neurology and neuroscience Kocsis and Waxman have been researching for decades, along with others. It has been more than two decades since Prof. Kocsis worked on early modified pig cells on non-human primates’ spinal injuries, yielding positive results. Shortly after that, he co-authored a paper on research into spinal cord remyelination and bone marrow stromal cells, or MSCs, in 2002. Those papers previewed what Kocsis and Waxman were able to accomplish with human subjects. The work being done by Yale University and Sapporo Medical University is not the only work being done. For a very long time, researchers have been trying to discover how stem cells can help treat all kinds of diseases, maladies, and injuries. Everything from arthritis treatments to chronic heart disease is on the list of potential problems patients face that could be ameliorated by stem cell breakthroughs.
New understandings about the varied nature of spinal cord injuries, therapies, and other treatments have evolved and shown promise in ameliorating some of the kinetic losses faced by people with spinal injuries. Susan Harkema of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center told LeapsMag in 2018 that “The spinal cord has much more responsibility for executing movement than we thought before. Successful movement can happen without those connections from the brain.” The work that investigators like Harkema and others have done in this field of treatment, using physical rehabilitation along with “electrical stimulation,” have yielded positive results that were considered unlikely just a decade ago.
While still in the earliest of stages, research continues to provide hope at every stage of the process. There are scientists working to discover new and safer ways to treat the initial injuries themselves, in such a way as to bring about better prognosis for the injured person. Besides working with stem cells and figuring out ways to regrow lost nerves and connections using patients’ own bodies to create solutions, there have been exciting (though early) indications that gene therapies might also be able to provide treatments for lost connections between the brain and the spinal cord. Neurotechnology has become a field of innovation, promising relief and movement to patients who otherwise would not have it. And like all problems that need solutions, the research into exactly why the body reacts the way it does to spinal cord injuries continues being essential, and therefore pursued.
The news coming out of Yale University and Sapporo Medical University is not the final answer. It is one of the steps forward in turning what was once considered a fatal injury into something that has possible treatments, and shows the promise of having exponentially better treatments. The research and breakthroughs taking place in service of spinal cord injury patients will have far-reaching uses for all kinds of other neurodegenerative issues people face. The pursuit of scientific discovery works like that: You solve or don’t solve one problem, and then someone down the road realizes that solution or perceived failure can be applied toward something new and exciting that helps in ways once thought unimaginable.
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