Scientists are preparing for a large clinical trial in 2008 which aims to use stem cells to help 400 patients with spinal cord injuries in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan grow new cells and nerve fibers.
Stem cells from umbilical cord blood will be injected into the spinal cords of the participants, who will also be given lithium to help stimulate cell regeneration, said Wise Young, a leading neuroscientist and spinal cord injury researcher.
“What we’d like to do is study a broad range of patients, not just (those with) complete (spinal cord injuries),” said Young, professor at Rutgers’ department of cellbiology and neuroscience. Rutgers is the state university in New Jersey in the U.S.
Researchers are now giving lithium to 20 patients in Hong Kong in the phase 1 safety and feasibility trial. Lithium is a chemical element that is believed to boost cell regeneration.
In preparation for the large 2008 trial, which will involve 400 patients in 14 mainland Chinese cities, Hong Kong and Taipei, doctors in all three places recently agreed on the method to deliver stem cells into spinal cords, said Young, who is also a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Stem cells extracted from matching umbilical cord blood taken from public blood banks will be injected into the spinal cords of the subjects, who will also be given lithium.
The procedure should hopefully help subjects grow new nerve fibers and “bridges” — structures that allow the new fibers to reconnect with other parts of the spinal cord.
“Our main outcome measure will be neurological motor and sensory scores,” Young said in an interview with selected media. “We want to see whether the patients recover sensation. It has three measures: touch, pain which is assessed by pin-prick, and the third is strength of 10 standardized muscles.”
The trial, the biggest in the field in Asia, comes as China is devoting significant resources into stem cell research.
Its attitude and achievements have drawn U.S.-based scientists like Young to conduct research there due to opposition to embryonic stem cell research in the United States.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, including President George W. Bush, say it is unethical to experiment on human embryos, even those never destined to become a baby.
Stem cells are the body’s master cells, found throughout the tissue and blood. Whether from the adult or from embryos, they may be used to find treatments and cures for serious diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
Embryonic stem cells are considered potentially the most powerful but are also the most controversial, and federal law greatly restricts the use of taxpayer money to pay for experiments using them.
“Scientists in the U.S. are so upset at the stopping of (embryonic) stem cell research, but this would be a great opportunity for Asia, great opportunity for China … because there are so many researchers working in this field,” Young said, adding that Hong Kong had a special position in all of this.
“Hong Kong is in a special position for science because it has credibility. Many people don’t trust what is going on inside China,” he said, noting also that Hong Kong badly needed government support and funding.
Private donors are funding the US$26 million spinal cord clinical trial.
By Tan Ee Lyn HONG KONG, Reuters