UCI researchers explain their history from learning about stem cells to utilizing them to treat patients.
Husband and wife, Dr. Brian Cummings and Dr. Aileen Anderson of UC Irvine’s Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, put their brains together to research spinal cord regeneration through neural stem cell transplantation.
Their research and clinical trials to treat spinal cord injury have landed them a spot in this year’s OC Metro “Hottest 25 People in O.C.” list.
“I didn’t think that what I learned and researched would ever be tried in a patient,” Cummings said. “That was beyond my wildest dreams when I was a grad student.”
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine recently awarded $20 million to the stem cell duo and their longtime collaborators StemCell, Inc. to power the first clinical study of neural stem cell transplantation in spinal cord injured patients.
Anderson said there is a lot of truth in considering stem cell research as what her husband calls “a new era of medicine.”
While she was taking graduate biology classes at UCI, researchers at the time taught students the flat dogma that there are no stem cells in the adult nervous system.
“I can remember thinking in lecture, ‘I don’t believe it,’” Anderson said.
A change in scientific theory transpired when researchers audaciously claimed that mammals, and furthermore humans, have stem cells in their brain, and throughout the other parts of their body, like the heart and liver.
“It took a decade of fighting, in a good way,” Cummings said.
Cummings and Anderson research stem cells because comparing stem cells from a diseased brain versus those of a normal brain can tell them how the two brains work, without taking the brain out of a human.
“Stem cells do play a main role in our physiology and it’s not just when you are developing fetus,” Anderson said.
Understanding the real problems that complete and incomplete spinal cord injury inflicts upon patients motivated Anderson and Cummings to push their research and preclinical, animal studies to the next step of clinical: human trials.
Both types of injury causes a loss of independence for the patient affected. The most important needs for these patients are recovery of their bowel, bladder and sexual function, all of which are lost in thoracic and cervical spinal cord injury.
“Imagine if in order to get up and go to work in the morning, it didn’t take you 30 minutes, it took you three hours and the same thing to go to bed at night,” Anderson said.
Cumming and Anderson’s first clinical trial tested the safety of stem cell transplants into patients who had complete thoracic spinal chord injury. According to Cummings, the results have shown that the two patients whose sensation did improve will likely remain this way.
This proves to be an encouraging sign for Anderson and Cummings because patient improvement has granted them the OK to continue clinical trials.
The duo is now testing a clinical trial for a second set of three patients who are motor-complete, meaning no motor function due to thoracic spinal cord injury, but who still have some sensation.
“We are still testing for safety because we want to see if these stem cells exacerbate any sensory problems the patients might have,” Cummings said.
According to Anderson, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has invested extensively in stem cell research. Their bigger focus currently falls on patient independence.
“Our real goal is to get the safety data and animal model data that we need to move on to cervical spinal chord injury,” Anderson said.
Cervical is the most common type of spinal chord injury due to the frailty of the neck.
“Three levels in the neck region could give you back motor function and sensation in your fingers, wrist and elbow,” Cummings said.
Cummings said that if they can treat cervical spinal cord injury, it should be incremental, meaning it will also treat the effects of thoracic spinal cord injury.
“The volume of change would be huge at the cervical level,” Anderson said.
The possible reason for these changes, according to Anderson, is that stem cells can stimulate plasticity and regeneration of cells by conditioning the environment they are transplanted into.
Although Cummings discounts the stereotype that stem cell transplants can grow you a new heart, both he and Anderson value the current revolution that is stem cell research.
“Stem cell research opens up a whole new set of windows, windows we didn’t even know were there a decade ago,” Cummings said.
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