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Researchers from Yale University and Japan have reportedly found that an intravenous injection of bone marrow derived stem cells (MSCs) in patients with spinal cord injuries can lead to significant improvement in motor functions. Published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, the study was carried out with investigators from both institutions at Sapporo Medical University in Japan.
According to data quoted by Statista, the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the U.S. between 2015 and 2019 were vehicular accidents at 38.6%. The following most common causes of spinal cord injuries are falls (22%), violence (16%), and sports injuries (12%). Moreover, alcohol intoxication plays a role in 25% of all spinal cord injuries.
The patients that participated in the research had sustained, non-penetrating spinal cord injuries several weeks prior to implantation of the stem cells. Their symptoms involved loss of motor function and coordination, sensory loss, as well as bowel and bladder dysfunction. The stem cells were prepared from the patients’ own bone marrow, via a culture protocol that took a few weeks in a specialized cell processing center. The cells were injected intravenously in this series, with each patient serving as their own control. There were no placebo controls.
In the trial, 12 of the 13 patients reportedly had neurological improvement six months after the infusion. Of the six patients classified as American Spinal Injury Association Impairment Scale (ASIA) A (the most severe) prior to mesenchymal stem cells infusion, three improved to ASIA B and two to ASIA C. Two ASIA B patients improved to ASIA C or ASIA D. The authors also highlighted that five ASIA C patients reached a functional status of ASIA D one day following the infusion.
Substantial improvements were observed for more than half of the patients in key functions like ability to walk or to use their hands within weeks of the stem cell injection, and no substantial side effects were reported.
Yale scientists Jeffery D. Kocsis, professor of neurology and neuroscience, and Stephen G. Waxman, professor of neurology, neuroscience and pharmacology, who were senior authors of the study, said that additional studies will be needed to confirm the results of this preliminary, unblinded trial.
“Similar results with stem cells in patients with stroke increases our confidence that this approach may be clinically useful,” Kocsis noted. “This clinical study is the culmination of extensive preclinical laboratory work using MSCs between Yale and Sapporo colleagues over many years.”
Waxman, on the other hand, said: “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.”
This development could be a game changer for the nearly 17,730 new spinal cord injury cases in the U.S. each year. Approximately 10 to 20% of patients who have sustained a spinal cord injury do not survive to reach acute hospitalization, whereas about 3% of patients die during acute hospitalization, according to one study. Moreover, 53% percent of spinal cord injury patients are left tetraplegic (partial or total paralysis of the arms, legs, and torso), and 42% are left paraplegic (partial or total paralysis of the legs).