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For the first time, people with broken spines have recovered feeling in previously paralysed areas after receiving injections of neural stem cells.
Three people with paralysis received injections of 20 million neural stem cells directly into the injured region of their spinal cord. The cells, acquired from donated fetal brain tissue, were injected between four and eight months after the injuries happened. The patients also received a temporary course of immunosuppressive drugs to limit rejection of the cells.
"We are very intrigued to see that patients have gained considerable sensory function," says Armin Curt of Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, where the patients were treated, and principal investigator in the trial.
The data are preliminary, but "these sensory changes suggest that the cells may be positively impacting recovery", says Curt, who presented the results today in London at the annual meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society.
The announcement comes almost a year after the world's only other trial to test stem cells for spinal injury was suspended. Geron of Menlo Park, California, had injected neural stem cells derived from embryonic stem cells into four people with spinal injuries when it announced that it was going to focus on cancer therapies instead. The company also abandoned its other stem-cell programmes combating diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
Huhn hopes that the results from the StemCells trial will revive the enthusiasm that evaporated following Geron's bombshell. "It's the first time we've seen a signal of some beneficial effect, so we're moving in the right direction, and towards a proof of concept," he says.
He says that about 3 per cent of patients show similar improvements spontaneously at about 6 months, but seldom beyond that. Testing the therapy on patients who were injured more than six months before would help to confirm that the stem cells are responsible for the results.