By Diya Barmecha
Spinal cord injuries have a possibility of causing damage to the spinal cord. This results in a loss of various normal functions such as mobility and sensations in that area. The main causes for these fatal diseases are trauma like a car accident or a gunshot. Other diseases like Polio or Friedreich’s ataxia can also be a cause. In India, the average incidence of spinal cord injuries are 15,000 with a prevalence of 0.15 million.
The World Health Organisation believes that the incidence of SCI increases in developing countries due to the imminent health burden present. However, there is hope for these patients as early research suggests that with infusion of stem cells, these patients will be able to regain the sensations and movements that they had lost. Stem cells can morph into any other cell type.
Research and studies predict that there will be improvements in the first few weeks of the stem cell therapy. According to a small study, these improvements can last for a total of six months. One small drawback and potential variable to investigate is that the 13 people in the study had injured and not severed their spinal cords. Their main limitations were their loss of motor function and coordination of their bladder and bowel movements. Out of these 13 subjects, 12 had shown improvement in their sensory and motor functions within six months of their infusion. These improvements were quantified by the changes on the American Spinal Injury Association impairment scale which measures the injury severity.
Dr. Griffin Baum, a spine surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital located in New York City who was not a part of this research expresses his excitement by saying, “This is exciting because there are really limited treatment options for patients with spinal cord injury.”
The researchers in Yale university along with the help of scientists of Japan took the mesenchymal stem cells from participants’ own bone marrow. They multiplied them in a lab and then infused them back after 40 days. These Mesenchymal stem cells are adult stem cells found in the bone marrow’s skin and fat tissue. This type of therapy is called Stemirac. This is approved in Japan since 2018 and still is under controversy due to the lack of the research and data done on it. It is yet debatable how these stem cells minimize or reverse the damages.
The first and foremost implication is that this method is safe and has had no serious side effects in any of the participants so far. However, the improvements and why they take place are yet to be quantified. These improvements include better mobility in the spinal cord, better sensory functions. This spontaneous recovery until now only occurs in spinal cord injuries according to researchers. Given its less reliable nature Baum has also said that, “I think the results should be taken with a grain of salt, and enthusiasm should be tempered. More research is required to see whether, on a larger scale, these results could be replicated and statistically significant,”
However, according to a professor of radiology and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Mike Modo, “The amazing thing here is that after just a single infusion of stem cells, we are seeing benefits out of six months,” he also continues to mention that an added benefit is that the therapy is done through intravenous infusion which is minimally invasive and comparatively very safe. He adds, “IV delivery is minimal in terms of impact on patients, and that is the big contribution of this paper.”
Although it sounds superficial now, I believe that in a few years the technology and the will to create something to help the patients suffering from spinal cord injuries will be present. These experiments have only shown improvements in the patients for 6 months for now. However, with more research this duration can increase and maybe we can truly get a cure for this discomfort with the stem cells of a human. There are many researches and studies happening about stem cells and how it is going to change the way we look at technology and medicine. Therefore, in conclusion, despite the pros and the cons, I believe that stem cells could really once and for all put an end to the spinal cord injuries, with more, deeper research.