“Patients who were in wheelchairs are walking now” following surgery using adult stem cells

By Dave Andrusko

Stroke-scan-718x523I was pleased but not surprised at the response to “Ethically sound stem cells provide “meaningful” recover in stroke victims” that ran yesterday in NRL News Today. Good news sometimes really does travel fast.

The research at Stanford University School of Medicine is so encouraging and potentially applicable to such a wide range of disorders that I thought I’d take a second pass, and in so doing address a couple of questions that came up.

A brief summary. One of the “givens” for researchers forever and a day is that after a certain point in time, the brain will not regenerate. In the research, which was reported on yesterday in the journal Stroke, 18 patients who had suffered strokes between six months and three years previously, allowed surgeons to bore holes in their skulls and inject adult stem cells from the bone marrow of two donors into the damaged areas.

In our post yesterday, I don’t think I did justice to how much improvement the patients had made. According to the story written by Sarah Knapton, Science Editor for the Telegraph.

“The remarkable recovery we saw in many of these chronic stroke patients was quite surprising,” said Prof Gary Steinberg, Chair of Neurosurgery at Stanford, who has spent 15 years researching stem cells.

“This wasn’t just ‘they couldn’t move their thumb and now they can’. Patients who were in wheelchairs are walking now. Their ability to move around has recovered visibly. That’s unprecedented.

Dr. Steinberg told New Scientist, “One 71-year-old woman could only move her left thumb at the start of the trial,” adding, “She can now walk and lift her arm above her head.”

From our perspective, along with the sizable improvement, there were a string of positives. At the top of the list is that the source was not embryonic stem cells but adult stem cells about which there are no ethical objections.

Then there is the possible application of the therapy to other neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s Disease [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis].

On top of that, more and more evidence that previous thinking–that the affected brain circuits are “dead”–is not the case. Says Dr. Steinberg, “Now, we have to rethink this, and I personally think the circuits are inhibited, and our treatment helps to disinhibit them.”

Dr. Ralph Sacco is chairman of neurology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. He told UPI

“The latest thinking is that the big virtue of stem cells — in addition to their anti-inflammatory and immunological effect — may be their ability to secrete chemicals that activate those surrounding brain cells so that they can start to pick up function for the parts of the brain that no longer work right.”

I asked our resident expert on stem cells, Dr. David Prentice, what appears to have happened in the brains of the patients. He told NRL News Today

What they are saying is just that it doesn’t look like the bone marrow adult stem cells go make lots of new brain cells. Rather, the adult stem cells seem to go into the brain and wake up endogenous repair mechanisms within the brain. This may be a bit like a general ordering the troops into action, making the brain cells more flexible to engage in repair.

Dr. Steinberg (as we noted yesterday) is properly cautious and is already talking of a larger study.

But Sonia Olea Coontz, understandably, was less restrained.

“The other treatments before surgery didn’t work,” she told UPI’s Alan Mozes . “Not really. I felt like my whole body was dead. Like it wasn’t working at all. Rehab didn’t help. But after the surgery, it felt like my body was all of a sudden awake.”