Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries: a curse without a cure?
In the United States today, approximately 1,250,000 people suffer from Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries (1). According to the Biomedical Department at Brown, our current treatment options for people suffering from Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI) are very limited: today’s tactics can limit the damage dealt to the spinal cord during and after the injury, but can do nothing do remedy damage that’s already been done.
What has been holding research back?
For a long time now, Stem-Cell research has been touted as a potential cure to paralysis, but, until a recent research publication by University of California, Irvine, few breakthroughs had been made (1).
This was due, in part, to the persistence of a neurological condition known as Allodynia (3). To appreciate the gravity of the recent breakthrough, a basic understanding of Intraspinal Neural Cell Grafts, and the impact of Allodynia on their success, is required.
According the recent U Cal, Irvine publication, “Human Neural Stem Cells Differentiate and Promote Locomotor Recovery in an Early Chronic Spinal Cord Injury NOD-scid Mouse Model”, the process of an Intraspinal Neural Cell Graft is described as such: “Human neural stem cells (hCNS-SCns) were prospectively isolated based on fluorescence-activated cell sorting for a CD133+ and CD24−/lo population from fetal brain, grown as neurospheres, and lineage restricted to generate neurons, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes.”
Neuroscience terminology explained
To put that more colloquially, I’ll provide some layman’s definitions of the technical words, then re-explain the process in plain English.
–Fluorescent-activated cell sorting– A method Invented by Mack Fulwyler in 1965, and expanded upon by Len Herzenberg in 1971 (see publication here) it is a technique that is used to sort out a specific type of cell from heterogeneous mixture of cells.
–Neurospheres– Neural cell clusters that contain stem cells and can be influenced into developing into a wide variety of neural cells.
–Oligodendrocytes– neural cells whose main function is to insulate axons (a part of the neural cell through which the electrical impulse is carried)
–Astrocytes– support the olgiodendrocytes, the blood brain barrier, and the recovery of the brain and spinal cord after traumatic injuries
So, in essence, what stem cell researchers are doing is removing stem cells from the fetal brain though a sorting process, growing them into highly adaptable neurospheres, and influencing their grown into three distinct cell types- all of which can compensate for the brain damage issued by traumatic spinal cord injuries.
Allodynia- the long time foe of Stem-Cell Researchers
Of course, if this process worked exactly as described, with no glitches along the way, we would probably already be performing medical miracles on the paralyzed. But, like so many other discoveries-in-progress, unforeseen challenges have popped up along the way.
The major challenge that’s been plaguing Stem-Cell research has been articulated in an article titled “Allodynia limits the usefulness of intraspinal neural stem cell grafts; directed differentiation improves outcome”
Basically, the process of stem-cell growth was not as controlled as researchers hoped, and, as articulated in the above article’s abstract, “grafting of adult neural stem cells … improves motor recovery but also causes aberrant axonal sprouting associated with allodynia-like hypersensitivity”(3)
Allodynia is basically a catchall condition referring to any, “Pain from stimuli which are not normally painful.”(4) Which, of course, would comprise the effectiveness of paralysis treatment- minor motor improvement coupled with excruciating pain could hardly be considered a medical advancement.
Latest study exhibits first success full Intraspinal Neural Cell Graft
But hope is on the horizon for victims of Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries: a recently completed study at University of California, Irivin, has, for the first time, successfully utilized an Intraspinal Neural Cell Graft with injured mice, and has brought about increased mobility without any signs of Allodynia. Although it may be a long road from the laboratory to operating room, this successful experiment gives real and tangible hope to CSI victims.
1. Desirée L. Salazar, Nobuko Uchida, Frank P. T. Hamers, Brian J. Cummings, Aileen J. Anderson, “Human Neural Stem Cells Differentiate and Promote Locomotor Recovery in an Early Chronic Spinal coRd Injury NOD-scid Mouse Model,” plosone.org
2. Treatment Overview, Biomed.brown.edu
3. Christoph P Hofstetter, Niklas A V Holmström, Johan A Lilja, Petra Schweinhardt, Jinxia Hao, Christian Spenger, Zsuzsanna Wiesenfeld-Hallin, Shekar N Kurpad, Jonas Frisén, & Lars Olson, “Allodynia limits the usefulness of intraspinal neural stem cell grafts; directed differentiation improves outcome”, Nature.com
4.Neural stem cells, Brittanica.com