Stell Cell Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

Lab WorkStem cell therapy is a new type of advanced treatment that is showing promising results for repairing brain damage and restoring dead cells for people with cerebral palsy. Since cerebral palsy is caused by brain injury at birth, stem cell therapy can offer unique benefits and potentially reduce the extent of physical disability in people living with CP. As research continues to develop, doctors are hopeful that stem cells can even help prevent the development of complications associated with CP.

Can Stem Cells Cure Cerebral Palsy?

Currently there is no real cure for cerebral palsy, so this is often the first question that is asked when new treatments emerge for CP. At this point, doctors are still skeptical about whether or not stem cells have the ability to cure CP, and the main goal of their research is to help reduce the number of disabilities caused by the condition and to possibly limit the amount of brain damage. In a perfect scenario, stem cells would be able to stop brain damage before it even starts. However, stem cell research in regards to CP is still in its preliminary phases and results from human subjects are still years away.

How Stem Cells can Treat Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by lack of oxygen to the brain during birth or pregnancy. This lack of oxygen is known as hypoxic-ischemic injury and it causes damage to the protective layer of neurons in the brain known as the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath surrounds the neuron to keep it healthy and alive, but when it is damaged or destroyed the nerve cell decays and eventually dies. If there was a way to prevent the support cells that form the myelin sheath from dying, it could also prevent or mitigate the impairments caused by CP. This is where the possibility of stem cells come into play.

Stem cells are unique in the sense that they are known as unspecialized cells that have the ability to form into virtually any kind of specialized cell, including brain cells. This process creates the opportunity to take the stem cells and manipulate them to replace the damaged myelin sheath and protect the neuron from dying, thus avoiding further brain damage. This process of taking unspecialized cells and transforming them is known as differentiation. Stem cells also have the ability to replicate themselves over and over again, creating a nearly endless amount to be used in research trials.

What Types of Stem Cells are Used?

There are currently four different stem cells being used in trials for CP stem cell research. These four stem cells include:

  • Natural stem cells
  • Induced pluripotent stem cells
  • Mesenchymal stem cells (MCS)
  • Umbilical cord stem cells

Each stem cell has its own benefits, and researchers have differing opinions on which one would work best for treating CP.

Some experts consider MCS to be most effective when treating young children and infants. In animal trials, MCS has shown consistent success and is considered a safe option for trials in human brains. On the other hand, some experts also believe that human umbilical cord stem cells (HUC) would be most beneficial for people specifically suffering from CP.

HUCs have multiple benefits for being used. First, there is a consistent supply of HUCs from harvesting and donations of umbilical cords, which can speed up research and make it easier for doctors to find an effective treatment. HUCs also go through a rigorous screening for bacteria and viruses, avoiding any possible contamination that would be harder to identify with other stem cells. Through the screening process, doctors have also identified various genes and proteins that can make it easier to find the best stem cells for treatment, referred to as "golden cells". With umbilical stem cells, HLA matching is not required, meaning anyone can be treated with it.

How far are We in Stem Cell Research?

Stem cell therapy for treating CP still has a long way to go. Currently, there are trials being conducted in mice, and the results so far have been successful in reducing brain damage and limiting the number of side effects. While promising, the trial results should be taken lightly as the animal brain and the human brain can have drastically different reactions to treatments. However, due to these positive results in mice, four new human clinical trials have recently begun for very small groups of people. The results of human trials will still take years to produce, and even afterward treatments will have to be approved by different health organizations, like the FDA, in order to be offered to the public at large.

How can I get Involved?

If you or someone you know has CP and has exhausted other methods of treatment for symptoms, there are some ongoing trials that are looking for subjects. Before deciding to become a subject for a clinical trial, you should be aware that there will be potential risks involved with taking the treatment. Even though animal trials have been successful, the human brain is much more complex and may not respond in the same way.

Georgia Regents University has an ongoing trial for using cord blood stem cell infusion to treat CP. Subjects must be children between the ages of 1 and 12 who have already been diagnosed with CP. The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston is also conducting an ongoing trial using two different stem cell methods to treat CP. Subjects must be between the ages of 2 and 10 and diagnosed with CP.

For further information in regards to joining clinical trials, call the National Institute of Health's (NIH) patient participation hotline at 1-800-411-1222 or the Cord Blood Registry (CBR) at 1-888-932-6568. Be aware that clinical trials may have different requirements in order for a person to be eligible for the treatment. Results from the trial may also take a long time to develop, with results sometimes taking up to a year or more to be released.