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New stem cell therapy for spinal injuries

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Namita’s life came to a standstill the day she suffered a spinal cord injury 16 years ago. Bound to a wheelchair all these years, she felt life was passing her by. Namita, who loved the outdoors, couldn’t even move without help. But what embarrassed her most was her loss of bowel and bladder control. Depressed, she had almost become a recluse. Then life changed suddenly again after she went for a new stem cell therapy. It worked wonders — she has regained some movement of her legs; she can take a few steps with the help of a walker and has even regained control over her bladder.

Harsha, a Bangalore-based Paraplegic, too has reason to smile these days. He had got used to life in a wheelchair for years. But a mesenchymal stem cell transplant in his spinal chord has given him some hope. Harsha can now move his limbs a little, and that’s given him a new lease of hope.

Every year, India gets over 20,000 cases of spinal cord injury patients. A new Mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy could be the answer for these patients. The research, conducted by a team of doctors at Bangalore-based Stempeutics Research, has shown promising results. In the pilot study, MSCs were injected directly into the spinal cord of the patient for maximum efficacy. It was injected either intra-arterially or through intra-spinal (site of injury) route. This new technique of injecting of stem cells close to the site of injury showed good results. “This is the first time anyone has tried injecting stem cells directly into the injured area. And we got good results,” says Dr Sujay Rao, consultant neurosurgeon, St Philomenas Hospital, Bangalore. “This system maximises the yield of stem cells. The chances of loss in the bloodstream is minimised,” Rao explains.

Traditionally, stem cells have always been injected either through intravenous drips or through lumber puncture directly into the cerebo-spinal fluid. But when injected this way, the stem cells float around the body or in the blood stream. Very few of them reach the target. Moreover, in case of spinal cord injuries, the adjoining tissues let out a signal called cytobine signals, which attract stem cells from other parts of body to heal the injury. But in case of an old injury, these signals are not let out anymore. Therefore, the stem cells that are injected in the body through the traditional method may not get attracted to the injury at all. The new method takes care of all this. Here, MSCs are injected directly into the injury for maximum effect. These can create tissues or cartilage or bones as required by the injury and repair it.

So what are MSCs? Stem cells, or master cells as they are popularly known as, are cells that can divide and produce copies of themselves and other types of cells. Doctors are using them to treat complex problems like Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, end-stage liver diseases. While we are familiar with embryonic stem cells drawn from the umbilical cord, there are many other types of human stem cells. MSCs are found in the bone marrow. They can be derived into a variety of cells in the laboratory, including fat cells, cartilage, bone, tendons and ligaments, muscles cells, skin cells and even nerve cells. In fact, scientists can even grow these cells in culture. Experts say, unlike most other human adult stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells can be obtained in quantities appropriate for clinical applications, making them good candidates for use in tissue repair. Since the techniques for isolation and amplification of these stem cells in culture have been established, the cells can be maintained and propagated in culture for long periods of time without losing their capacity to form all the above cell types.

What’s more, MSCs can retain the introduced genes. So doctors can make use of this trait to deliver good molecules to targeted locations. They can even be frozen and preserved, and when they are thawed, they function normally, thus allowing for future ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy approaches as well.

The new therapy from Stempeutics Research could thus provide hope for many spinal injury patients who have tried out all other treatments. “It may not be a miracle cure. In fact, the success rate could be 10-15%. Yet, it can significantly improve the quality of life of some of these patients at least,” Rao explains.

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