Traumatic spinal cord injury is a potentially devastating event in which the nerves and nerves cells in the spinal cord are damaged. In the United States, more than a quarter of a million people struggle with the lifelong consequences of traumatic spinal cord injury. The consequences of spinal cord injury vary from person to person, but each person usually must deal with several complications. Many people with spinal cord injury are paralyzed. They are at risk for pressure ulcers, blood clots in the legs, urine and bowel problems, and sexual dysfunction. Despite being paralyzed, as many as two-thirds of patients with spinal cord injury experience chronic pain, which is difficult to treat. Spinal cord injury can also affect how the heart and lungs function.
There are no specific treatments for spinal cord injury. If the injury is treated early, steroids and spine surgery/neurosurgery can help reduce long-term complications. In some cases of incomplete spinal cord injury, physical therapy can help people regain some degree of function. For the most part, treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms rather than curing the injury. Treating the symptoms helps make the disease less of a burden, but is by no means the same as a cure.
Because spinal cord injury has such long-lasting and devastating effects, researchers are actively pursuing ways to heal injured spinal cord nerve cells. One possible way to do this is through the use of stem cells.
Liu and coauthors conducted a clinical trial on 22 patients with spinal cord injury. The doctors collected mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord tissue that would normally be discarded as medical waste after delivery. They purified the stem cells and then used them to treat the injured patients. Astoundingly, stem cell treatment was effective in 13 of 22 patients. Patients who achieved benefit from stem cells enjoyed the return of motor function, sensory function, or both. All patients who were treated with stem cells reported less pain, improved sensation, better movement, and a greater ability to provide self-care. Importantly, the treatment did not cause any notable side effects for up to three years after treatment.
These clinical trial results are truly remarkable, but it is important to note that the number of patients treated was small and further testing is needed. Nevertheless, the researchers concluded that treatment with mesenchymal stem cells derived from umbilical cells is safe, and can improve function and quality of life in most patients with spinal cord injury.
Reference: Liu et al. (2013). Clinical analysis of the treatment of spinal cord injury with umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells. Cytotherapy. 2013 Feb;15(2):185-91.