Stem Cells Spark Hope in Spinal Cord Recovery

Summary: A phase 1 clinical trial has revealed that stem cells derived from patients’ own fat may safely enhance sensation and movement in individuals with traumatic spinal cord injuries. In the study, seven out of ten adults showed measurable improvements on the ASIA Impairment Scale, experiencing increased sensation, muscle strength, and improved bowel function without serious side effects.

The findings challenge the longstanding belief that spinal cord injuries are irreparable, offering new hope for treatments. With the spinal cord’s limited repair capability, this research signifies a crucial step towards innovative therapies, emphasizing the need for further studies to unlock the full potential of stem cell treatments.

Key Facts:

  1. The trial showed seven participants improved in sensory and motor functions post-stem cell therapy, marking a significant finding in spinal cord injury treatment.
  2. No adverse events were reported, highlighting the safety of using fat-derived stem cells for spinal cord injuries.
  3. The research paves the way for larger, controlled trials to assess the efficacy and optimal patient profiles for stem cell therapy in spinal cord recovery.

Source: Mayo Clinic

A Mayo Clinic study shows stem cells derived from patients’ own fat are safe and may improve sensation and movement after traumatic spinal cord injuries.

The findings from the phase 1 clinical trial appear in Nature Communications.

The results of this early research offer insights on the potential of cell therapy for people living with spinal cord injuries and paralysis for whom options to improve function are extremely limited.

This shows a spine.
Stem cells are used mainly in research in the U.S., and fat-derived stem cell treatment for spinal cord injury is considered experimental by the Food and Drug Administration. Credit: Neuroscience News

In the study of 10 adults, the research team noted seven participants demonstrated improvements based on the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Impairment Scale. Improvements included increased sensation when tested with pinprick and light touch, increased strength in muscle motor groups, and recovery of voluntary anal contraction, which aids in bowel function.

The scale has five levels, ranging from complete loss of function to normal function. The seven participants who improved each moved up at least one level on the ASIA scale. Three patients in the study had no response, meaning they did not improve but did not get worse.

“This study documents the safety and potential benefit of stem cells and regenerative medicine,” says Mohamad Bydon, M.D., a Mayo Clinic neurosurgeon and first author of the study.

“Spinal cord injury is a complex condition. Future research may show whether stem cells in combination with other therapies could be part of a new paradigm of treatment to improve outcomes for patients.”

No serious adverse events were reported after stem cell treatment. The most commonly reported side effects were headache and musculoskeletal pain that resolved with over-the-counter treatment.

In addition to evaluating safety, this phase 1 clinical trial had a secondary outcome of assessing changes in motor and sensory function. The authors note that motor and sensory results are to be interpreted with caution given limits of phase 1 trials. Additional research is underway among a larger group of participants to further assess risks and benefits.

The full data on the 10 patients follows a 2019 case report that highlighted the experience of the first study participant who demonstrated significant improvement in motor and sensory function.

Stem cells’ mechanism of action not fully understood

In the multidisciplinary clinical trial, participants had spinal cord injuries from motor vehicle accidents, falls and other causes. Six had neck injuries; four had back injuries. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 65.

Participants’ stem cells were collected by taking a small amount of fat from a 1- to 2-inch incision in the abdomen or thigh. Over four weeks, the cells were expanded in the laboratory to 100 million cells and then injected into the patients’ lumbar spine in the lower back. Over two years, each study participant was evaluated at Mayo Clinic 10 times.

Although it is understood that stem cells move toward areas of inflammation — in this case the location of the spinal cord injury — the cells’ mechanism of interacting with the spinal cord is not fully understood, Dr. Bydon says.

As part of the study, researchers analyzed changes in participants’ MRIs and cerebrospinal fluid as well as in responses to pain, pressure and other sensation. The investigators are looking for clues to identify injury processes at a cellular level and avenues for potential regeneration and healing.

The spinal cord has limited ability to repair its cells or make new ones. Patients typically experience most of their recovery in the first six to 12 months after injuries occur. Improvement generally stops 12 to 24 months after injury.

One unexpected outcome of the trial was that two patients with cervical spine injuries of the neck received stem cells 22 months after their injuries and improved one level on the ASIA scale after treatment.

Two of three patients with complete injuries of the thoracic spine — meaning they had no feeling or movement below their injury between the base of the neck and mid-back — moved up two ASIA levels after treatment.

Each regained some sensation and some control of movement below the level of injury. Based on researchers’ understanding of traumatic thoracic spinal cord injury, only 5% of people with a complete injury would be expected to regain any feeling or movement.

“In spinal cord injury, even a mild improvement can make a significant difference in that patient’s quality of life,” Dr. Bydon says.

Research continues into stem cells for spinal cord injuries

Stem cells are used mainly in research in the U.S., and fat-derived stem cell treatment for spinal cord injury is considered experimental by the Food and Drug Administration.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 people worldwide suffer a spinal cord injury each year, according to the World Health Organization.

An important next step is assessing the effectiveness of stem cell therapies and subsets of patients who would most benefit, Dr. Bydon says. Research is continuing with a larger, controlled trial that randomly assigns patients to receive either the stem cell treatment or a placebo without stem cells.

“For years, treatment of spinal cord injury has been limited to supportive care, more specifically stabilization surgery and physical therapy,” Dr. Bydon says.

“Many historical textbooks state that this condition does not improve. In recent years, we have seen findings from the medical and scientific community that challenge prior assumptions. This research is a step forward toward the ultimate goal of improving treatments for patients.”

Dr. Bydon is the Charles B. and Ann L. Johnson Professor of Neurosurgery. This research was made possible with support from Leonard A. Lauder, C and A Johnson Family Foundation, The Park Foundation, Sanger Family Foundation, Eileen R.B. and Steve D. Scheel, Schultz Family Foundation, and other generous Mayo Clinic benefactors. The research is funded in part by a Mayo Clinic Transform the Practice grant.

Review the study for a complete list of authors and funding.

About this stem cell and SCI research news

Author: Megan Luihn
Source: Mayo Clinic
Contact: Megan Luihn – Mayo Clinic
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Intrathecal delivery of adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells in traumatic spinal cord injury: Phase I trial” by Mohamad Bydon et al. Nature Communications


Intrathecal delivery of adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells in traumatic spinal cord injury: Phase I trial

Intrathecal delivery of autologous culture-expanded adipose tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells (AD-MSC) could be utilized to treat traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI).

This Phase I trial ( NCT03308565) included 10 patients with American Spinal Injury Association Impairment Scale (AIS) grade A or B at the time of injury.

The study’s primary outcome was the safety profile, as captured by the nature and frequency of adverse events.

Secondary outcomes included changes in sensory and motor scores, imaging, cerebrospinal fluid markers, and somatosensory evoked potentials. The manufacturing and delivery of the regimen were successful for all patients.

The most commonly reported adverse events were headache and musculoskeletal pain, observed in 8 patients. No serious AEs were observed. At final follow-up, seven patients demonstrated improvement in AIS grade from the time of injection.

In conclusion, the study met the primary endpoint, demonstrating that AD-MSC harvesting and administration were well-tolerated in patients with traumatic SCI.

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