There is currently no go-to highly effective treatment option for spinal cord injury, despite the significant challenges those with this type of injury face. However, recent research has shown that stem cells of the brain, called neural stem cells, can help regenerate damaged area of the spinal cord. The scientists, who conducted their experiment in China, published these recent findings in the journal Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine.
Before this particular study was undertaken, it was observed that neural stem cells could help repair damage in the brain that occurred from other events, such as stroke. Because neural stem cells are able to proliferate and develop into multiple types of brain cells, they have been proposed to be an ideal type of stem cell for fixing neural injuries.
A hormone called erythropoietin, which is normally produced by the kidney, has also been shown to help neural stem cells differentiate into brain cells. Researchers therefore hypothesized that combining neural stem cell transplantation with injections of erythropoietin into the brain could help with recover from spinal cord injury. To test their idea, they induced spinal cord injury in rats and then split the rats in four groups: one group was given no treatment, one was given just a neural stem cell transplantation, one was given just erythropoietin, and one was given a combination of neural stem cell transplantation and erythropoietin.
After their interventions, the scientists saw that all the rats that received neural stem cells performed better on a test of hind limb recovery, which indicates recovery of spinal cord function. However, the rats that received the combination of neural stem cells and the hormone erythropoietin improved the most of all four groups, confirming the scientist’s idea that neural stem cells could help with reversing spinal cord injury, especially when in the presence of erythropoietin.
Going forward, researchers will likely work to see if these initial results replicate in other studies. If the results do seem to be consistent and reliable, scientists will probably begin to test the potential to use neural stem cells to treat spinal cord injury in human patients. Erythropoietin is already used clinically, so adding it to a neural stem cells transplantation protocol may also be something we see in the near future.
Zhao, Yan et al. (2016). Neural stem cell transplantation combined with erythropoietin for the treatment of spinal cord injury in rats. Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine, 12(4), 2688-2694.