First trials for stem cell transplant into human spine
Stem cells have been injected into the human spine in a pioneering trial to test the safety of the technique, with the hope of treating a debilitating neurodegenerative condition.
Three patients who suffer from motor neurone disease (also known as ALS), which causes the deterioration of nerves that control muscle movement, underwent the surgery. The disease causes muscles and limbs to waste away, eventually causing the lungs to collapse.
So far the procedures on three patients have gone smoothly. Each of them received five injections containing 500,000 stem cells. The surgery required a specially designed needle for the transplant into the spine. Scientists practiced this delivery of stem cells on 100 pigs before the first human trials could go ahead. Animal research was also needed to determine the type of stem cells which would be most effective. In this case it was the foetal nerve stem cells.
Previous studies on mice and rats have shown that a direct injection of stem cells can help repair damaged nerves from injury, restoring motor function. When the cells were injected into mice that were predisposed to develop ALS, the development of the disease was significantly slowed. Mice which received the treatment lived on average two to three weeks longer than untreated mice- the equivalent of around two human years.
Doctors say all three patients are in good health, although not cured because the trial is still at the early stage of establishing safety. 12 more patients are still to undergo the procedure before the first phase of the trial will be complete. These other patients will have a greater number of stem cells injected into their spines to find the most effective level for patients.