The cure for paralysis?

In May 2011, UC Irvine opened the doors to the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, a 100,000 square foot facility that cost nearly $80 million to construct.

The center ushered in a new future for stem cell research. Being the first major stem cell research facility in Southern California, the scientists here at UC Irvine have already begun to prove the benefits of the research that they are doing here.

This past week, the research that husband-and-wife world-renowned research team, Brian Cummings and Aileen Anderson, finally came into fruition as the first patient began treatment in the clinical trial for the UC Irvine-developed stem cell therapy. This stem cell therapy utilizes purified neural stem cells to fix damage that has occurred along the vertebral column.

Ideally, once these neural stem cells are transplanted into the spinal cord they will travel to the specific site of injury and grow into neural tissue cells, repairing serious injuries that may have resulted in the loss of mobility. Cummings and Anderson believe that these cells will grow into new nerve tissue at injured areas.

The clinical trial’s first patient has already began treatment, a 23-year-old man from Germany, who after a debilitating car accident last April lost the ability to move his legs. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, and according to a statement released by StemCells, Inc., produced the neural cells used in the therapy.

This clinical trial already has international weight, and is taking place at the Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland.

Although there will be many hurdles to cross in this initial clinical trial, such as testing the efficiency of the treatment and making it through the difficult process, the patient remains hopeful.

The preliminary research performed here at UCI has already proven to be widely successful amongst mice in “differentiation, functional recovery, or the causal relationship between successful engraftment and observed behavioral improvements,” says the study published by the PNAS in late 2005.

The question that must be answered now, however, is whether or not the process can be just as successful in the human body environment.

In mice, the researchers found that human central nervous system (CNS) stem cells survive, migrate and express differentiation of different neural cells like neurons and oligodendrocytes after long-term engraftment in spinal cord-injured mice. The significance that this study provides, as shown in their findings published in the National Academy of Sciences, is that it proved that the “engraftment was associated with locomotor recovery.”

Being able to regain locomotor ability after having lost the ability to move brings an optimistic future to patients worldwide who have suffered debilitating accidents that have left them immobile. That being said, the process is not one to be taken lightly.

This clinical trial offers to bring back the ability to walk, which sadly affects millions annually, but the process is difficult and only has been proven to work on certain injuries. Due to the fact that the patients must have direct transplantation into the spinal cord, they are temporarily immunosuppressed, which can leave the patients weak and susceptible to viral and bacterial infections. Also, the treatment has its limitations. It is intended for “early chronic” spinal cord injuries referring to ones that are three to 12 months old, thus not all patients will be eligible for the treatment if it proves safe and effective enough for worldwide application.

Although it is still early in the laborious clinical trial process, this research, being one of the first in the world of science to utilize neural stem cells derived from aborted fetuses, shows the advancements that science has made and gives a glimpse as to where our future is headed.