People who do not suffer from any disability often take for granted the ability to freely move limbs. However, the loss of such an ability is devastating, and those to whom it happens to find life is never the same again. At least, that is the case without treatment. The good news is, paralysis may have the hope of treatment after all, in the form of stem cells.
In this article:
- Understanding the Intersection Between Paralysis and Stem Cells
- What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
- What Happens in Paralysis?
- How Can Stem Cell Treatment Help?
- How Close Are We to Widespread Stem Cell Treatments?
Potential of Stem Cells in Treating Paralysis
Paralysis is the loss of the ability to move, and in some cases, the ability to feel sensations within the body. While paralysis does not have any current treatments, there is hope that stem cells may be able to offer improvements for some types of paralysis in the future.
Understanding the intersection between paralysis and the possibilities represented by regenerative medicine requires an understanding of paralysis itself, as well as an understanding of how stem cells work. The following guide will explain these topics.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
Many people have heard of stem cells, but have either a vague concept of what they might be (a source of controversy or the basis for a cloned sheep) or no concept at all. That’s not unusual, considering stem cells are still in the early stages of research and use. Interestingly, stem cells were discovered more than 30 years ago and the term “stem cell” appears in scientific literature as far back as 1868.
That said, stem cells are the “master cells” of our bodies. Unlike the differentiated cells we would find in a leg muscle, toe bone, or nose cartilage, they aren’t confined to a specific cell type. Instead, stem cells can turn into multiple types of cell, depending on their environment and what surrounding hormones are telling them to become. There are a few types of stem cells:
- Multipotent stem cells, capable of turning into multiple types of cells in a specific class, such as hematopoietic stem cells, which can turn into the full range of blood cells.
- Pluripotent stem cells, which can turn into any cell in the body, and are naturally found within the embryo
- Induced pluripotent stem cells, which are pluripotent stem cells that have been created from formerly more differentiated cells, conveniently avoiding any moral issues surrounding using fetal or embryonic tissue.
These stem cells, when inserted into the body at the site of injury or disease, can replace distressed or malfunctioning cells and create new, working structures. This is applicable to a wide variety of applications, including paralysis.
What Happens in Paralysis?
Paralysis is defined by MedlinePlus as the loss of function in a part of the body. Partial paralysis is when a person can’t move one leg or arm or one half of their body. When the body is immobile from the waist down, that’s known as paraplegia, whereas immobility from the neck down is known as quadriplegia.
Paralysis may arise for a number of reasons, but the main cause is nerve damage. When this occurs, the body is unable to send the right messages from the brain to the muscle. Essentially, those muscles say, “Move this limb” or “Lift that hand,” but when the message can’t get there, the body is stuck.
The problem may arise in the brain itself, often as a result of stroke, or in another part of the body. For instance, traumatic accidents often result in a severing of nerves such as the spinal cord, disrupting the body’s ability to send messages. Repairing the damage means addressing the problem at the nerve level.
How Can Stem Cell Treatment Help?
Stem cells may be able to reverse paralysis due to injury or stroke. The general mechanism is:
- Doctors remove stem cells from the patient’s body or a donor’s body.
- They culture those cells in a lab until they’ve reached a certain number, deemed large enough to prove effective when introduced into the patient’s body.
- When that number is reached, physicians prep the patient and inject those stem cells into the affected part of the paralyzed victim.
- They then observe the patient over the coming days, weeks, and months to check for reaction and monitor progress.
So, does it work? Some studies say yes.
How Close Are We to Widespread Stem Cell Treatments?
One of the most inspiring stories today is that of Sonia Coontz, who suffered from a stroke that completely paralyzed her body and left her largely speechless. She was devastated, assuming her life was over, and because of this, she decided to enroll in a new clinical trial. However, the benefits proved much greater than the dangers, because today Sonia can walk, talk, and function normally. She has a child and a new life, all because of stem cells.
Researchers accomplished these miraculous results by injecting stem cells into the area of Sonia’s brain near the site of the stroke. Once inside her brain, the stem cells went to work identifying damaged nerves and replacing them with new ones. Sonia’s motor function and speech improved dramatically right away, after only one treatment.
Luckily, Sonia is not the only one. Researchers are hard at work identifying new treatments. A search of the world’s largest clinical trial database, ClinicalTrials.gov, identifies 36 trials when the terms “paralysis” and “stem cells” are searched together. This database is estimated to contain nearly three-quarters of clinical trials worldwide. Nine of these studies are actively recruiting patients.
Numerous research studies are also underway trying to identify the mechanisms that cause stroke, for instance, and trying to address them through stem cells.
To learn more about stem cells, watch this video:
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George Rhinehardt says
How do I participate in stem cell therapy?