Patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries have been given new hope of a treatment, after scientists reported a breakthrough in the use of stem cells.
Researchers said they have discovered that stem cells taken from the brain could be used to restore movement to paralyzed patients.
Experts said the breakthrough could pave the way for the creation of a spare set of matching cells, which could be used to “repair” such damage.
One of the most common causes of a disability in young adults, spinal damage can result from incidents ranging from car accidents and sport injuries to falls.
Each year more than 1,000 people in Britain suffer traumatic injuries to their neck or back leading to permanent paralysis. Currently, there is no proven treatment that can repair this damage.
In their study, the researchers from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, transplanted “neural stem cells” (NSCs) to mice with severe spinal cord injuries.
They then administered a drug known as valproic acid, which is used in the treatment of epilepsy.
The acid promoted the transplanted stem cells to generate nerve cells, rather than other brain cell types.
The team, reporting in the Journal of Clincal Investigation, concluded that the “combination therapy resulted in impressive restoration of hind limb function”.
Prof Kinichi Nakashima, who led the study, said the method could be developed as an effective treatment for severe spinal cord injuries, giving hope to paralysed patients.
“The body’s capacity to restore damaged neural networks in the injured… is severely limited,” he said.
“Although various treatment regimens can partially alleviate spinal cord injury, the mechanisms responsible for symptomatic improvement remain elusive.
“These findings raise the possibility that (stem cells)… can be manipulated to provide effective treatment for spinal cord injuries.”
But Tamir Ben-Hur, from Hadassah Hebrew University Medical School, Israel, said while the study showed “impressive” results, he cautioned that further work was needed “before it can be determined whether this approach will work in human patients”.
By Andrew Hough