Can stem cell therapy conquer the threat of neurological conditions?
An ageing global population suggests that the world’s health is improving, but there is a catch.
With age comes an increase in the incidence of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, which are currently incurable. If we are to enjoy a longer life, free from the misery of such debilitating diseases, we must meet the challenge of finding a cure.
The use of stem cells, collected from infant umbilical cord blood, is one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of recent times. As ongoing clinical trials continue to reveal the potential of this ground-breaking therapy, one of the most promising areas under investigation is its capability to treat neurological disorders.
Stem cell therapy has already proven effective in the treatment of blood cancers like leukemia, whereby transplanted stem cells have demonstrated an ability to ‘home in’ on the affected area and replace or repair damaged cells. Certain stem cells have also demonstrated anti-inflammatory and protective properties, as well as the ability to enhance the body’s own repair mechanisms. An increasing number of studies are investigating whether the same properties can be applied to repair the damage caused by neurological conditions like strokes, spinal cord injury, and degenerative brain diseases. If the theory bears out, banking your newborn child’s cord blood stem cells could provide an invaluable safeguard against the onset of neurological diseases later in life.
Certain stem cells have also demonstrated anti-inflammatory and protective properties, as well as the ability to enhance the body’s own repair mechanisms.
Which neurological conditions are being investigated?
Stem cell research is looking into the treatment of all the major neurological disorders, which include:
Alzheimer’s disease: The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease occurs when neurons (nerve cells) in the brain become damaged or destroyed. The condition causes a number of different symptoms, including difficulties with memory, language, problem solving and other cognitive skills. The number of people living with some form of dementia in 2017 is estimated to be almost 50 million worldwide. As the population continues to age, this figure is expected to almost double every 20 years, reaching 75 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050.
Alzheimer’s sufferers make smaller quantities of neurotrophins – proteins that help neurons grow and survive. Studies are investigating ways to use stem cells to help produce more neurotrophins, and the early signs are promising. Researchers are also using stem cells to grow neurons that have the same genetic background as people with Alzheimer’s, so that they can study the disease in greater depth and develop new ways of fighting it.
Cerebral Palsy: This condition affects the motor control centre of the brain, resulting in a lack of full control of physical movement. Current research is investigating how cord blood stem cell therapy may help treat cerebral palsy by getting the stem cells to develop into specific types of brain cells to protect, repair and replace the damaged cells.
At Duke University Medical Center, a team of researchers led by the world-leading authority on Cerebral Palsy, Dr Joanne Kurtzberg, found through their latest clinical trial that ‘umbilical cord blood improves whole brain connectivity and motor function in young children with cerebral palsy’. The study included 63 children under the age of six suffering from the condition and noticed that suitable doses of stem cells actually lessened the symptoms they suffered.
Multiple Sclerosis: This neurological condition (often referred to as MS) affects both the brain and spinal cord and occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the myelin, a substance which protects the nerve fibres in the central nervous system. This disrupts or stops the messages travelling between the brain and the rest of the body and can result in vision and balance problems, fatigue, dizziness, tremors and muscle spasms. Clinical trials are looking at the use of stem cell therapy to ‘reboot’ the immune system so that it no longer attacks the spinal cord, thus slowing down the onset of MS. It is also being investigated as a means of repair through replacing damaged cells with healthy ones.
Parkinson’s disease: This progressive condition is caused when nerve cells degenerate and levels of dopamine (a chemical produced by nerve cells which send signals to the area of the brain that deals with movement) are reduced, leading to jerky, uncontrolled movements, tremors and muscle rigidity. Research is currently looking at how cell transplantation may overcome Parkinson’s by restoring and replacing cells in the damaged tissues. One small-scale study in China using mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord blood to treat Parkinson’s disease recorded an improvement in clinical symptoms and quality of life.
Stroke: Scientists are looking at how stem cell based therapies may be effective at protecting vulnerable tissue during the acute phase of a stroke, by promoting the brain’s own repair process or replacing damaged brain tissue. This could be done by either stimulating the mobilisation of existing stem cells in the body or transplanting healthy stem cells. Other potential treatments in the pipeline include ‘off-the-shelf’ stem cell products for immediate use after a patient has suffered a stroke and individually tailored stem cell products to suit a specific type of stroke.
Motor Neurone Disease: This rare condition occurs when specialist nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, which control important muscle activity, stop working properly. This leads to difficulty in activities such as gripping, walking, speaking, swallowing and breathing. As the damage progresses, symptoms spread to other parts of the body and the condition becomes more debilitating. Studies carried out to date suggest that stem cell transplants could be effective in protecting existing motor neurones by regulating harmful immune responses or even producing growth factors that help neurons survive and repair themselves.
From brain injuries to epilepsy, stem cell therapy is at the forefront of research into new treatments.
More common neurological conditions that stem cell therapy could help
But the list doesn’t end there – from brain injuries to epilepsy, stem cell therapy is at the forefront of research into new treatments.
Traumatic brain injuries (TBI): This sort of brain injury can occur through either a single violent action or a series of concussive knocks over a period of time, known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). With CTE, the most serious of symptoms may not show up for months or even years after the injury has occurred. Stem cell therapy has the potential to treat TBI, regardless of its origins or, in some cases, regardless of how long the damage has been taking place, by repairing and relieving the symptoms. Studies suggest that the cord blood stem cells release substances that can help halt damage and promote healing by reducing inflammation and protecting tissue. Initial clinical studies in patients with TBI have demonstrated a significant improvement in neurological function six months after stem cell therapy. One recent US clinical trial has shown how stem cell therapy can help alleviate the neuroinflammatory response to trauma and preserve brain tissue.
Eye damage: Researchers are exploring the use of stem cell technology to find possible new treatments for a wide range of eye conditions, from cataracts and optic nerve disease to corneal damage and age-related macular degeneration. The latter is a disease of the retina, which is the leading cause of visual impairment and irreversible blindness in the world. Within the eye there are specialised cells, which serve specific functions to focus light and turn what is being seen into signals to the brain. The eye also contains several different types of stem cells, which constantly replace these specialised cells when they become impaired or worn out. Last year scientists succeeded in restoring a blind person’ sight using stem cell therapy to replace retinal cells that had deteriorated or become damaged. Just one case, but it offers hope that the treatment could be developed to restore the sight of millions. Stem cell therapy has also been developed to help patients with damaged corneas (the clear outermost part of the eye) by transplanting lab-grown stem cells into areas of the eye where these cells are lacking.
Epilepsy: Research pioneered by Dr Scott Baraban at the University of California is showing promising results in two different areas: firstly, how stem cells can help restore the balance between the neurons that is lost during an epileptic seizure; secondly, the potential of stem cells to replace damaged or mutated neurons, which are a cause of one form of the disease.
Migraine: The most common triggers for this most debilitating type of headache include stress, certain foods and food additives, shifts in the weather and stimuli such as bright lights, certain smells, perfumes or loud noises. All these triggers cause the trigeminal nerve, one of the main nerves of the face, to become inflamed, leading to severe pain in the face, jaw, head or neck. Stem cells can be used to combat inflammation of the trigeminal nerve, leading to long-term remission from headaches and a reduction in severity or duration of the headaches.
Protect your family by banking cord blood stem cells now
Neurological problems are the leading cause of disability globally and an estimated one billion people around the world suffer from some form of neurological disorder.
Neurological problems are the leading cause of disability globally and an estimated one billion people around the world suffer from some form of neurological disorder. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the burden of neurological disorders is particularly significant in countries with a growing population above the age of 65. However, it is not just a problem that affects the older generation. Approximately 25% of all people aged 16 to 64 have a chronic neurological disability.
However, with the advancements of stem cell technology, hope has emerged for some of the currently incurable neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and MS. Ongoing research continues to push the boundaries for the treatment of many different brain and spinal disorders, including key clinical trials for using stem cell therapy in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, as well as the recent exploration of peripheral transplantation in acute stroke patients.
As the science develops, the value of having a resource of viable stem cells increases. For expectant parents, the blessing of a new child comes with the golden opportunity to collect cord blood stem cells and bank them for future use.
It could be the most protective thing you ever do for your family.
Smart Cells is the UK’s first private cord blood storage company, helping parents from across the world take the pioneering decision to store the stem cells of their babies for greater security of health. For more information on umbilical cord blood banking or to organise a consultation, please click here to find the number of the office nearest to you, email us on UAE@smartcells.com, or click here.
About the author: Shamshad Ahmed, CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International.
Shamshad Ahmed is CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International Ltd. Opening in 2000, Smart Cells became the UK’s first private cord blood company – its goal to give parents more access to potentially life-saving treatment for their families. It is one of the UK’s largest private banks, operating across the globe and storing over 50,000 cord blood samples from people in over 70 countries. Shamshad started his career in finance and foreign exchange at Citibank before moving over to the world of clinical trials. He holds a BA from Nottingham Trent University, and he has been a member of the Young President’s Organization since 2008 – having served on the board for a number of those years.