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First study tracking stem cell treatments for children with spinal cord injuries shows potential benefit

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Previous studies have shown that multiple stem cell implantations might assist adults suffering from complete spinal cord injuries (SCI). Now a groundbreaking study released today in STEM CELLS Translational Medicine shows for the first time that children with SCI might benefit, too.

Marcin Majka, Ph.D., and Danuta Jarocha, Ph.D., led the study at Jagiellonian University College of Medicine in Krakow, Poland. “Although it was conducted on a small number of patients carrying a different injury level and type, preliminary results demonstrate the possibility of attaining neurological, motor and sensation and quality-of-life improvement in children with a chronic complete spinal cord injury through multiple bone marrow derived cell (BMNC) implantations. Intravenous implantations of these cells seem to prevent and/or help the healing of pressure ulcers,” Dr. Majka said.

The study involved five children, ranging in age from 3 to 7, all of whom were patients at University Children’s Hospital in Krakow. Each had suffered a spinal cord injury at least six months prior to the start of the stem cell program and was showing no signs of improvement from standard treatments. The patients collectively underwent 19 implantation procedures with BM-derived cells, with every treatment cycle followed by an intensive four weeks of rehabilitation.

The children were evaluated over a one to six year period for sensation and motor improvement, muscle stiffness and bladder function. Any improvement in their quality of life was also noted, based on estimated functional recovery. Additionally, the development of neuropathic pain, secondary infections, urinary tract infections or pressure ulcers was tracked.

“Two of the five children receiving the highest number of transplantations demonstrated neurological and quality-of-life improvements,” Dr. Jarocha said. “They included a girl who, before the stem cell implantations, had to be tube fed and needed a ventilator to breathe. She is now able to eat and breathe on her own.”

The study also demonstrated no long-term side effects from the BMNCs, leading the researchers to conclude that single and multiple BMNCs implantations were safe for pediatric patients as well as adults.

Interestingly, when the scientists compared their study with those done on adults, the results did not suggest an advantage of the younger age. “This is somehow unexpected since the younger age should provide better ability to regenerate. Since the present study was done on a small number of patients, a larger study using the same methodology for pediatric and adult patients allowing a direct comparison should be performed to confirm or contradict the observation. Larger studies with patients segregated according to the type and level of the injury with the same infusion intervals should be performed to obtain more consistent data, too,” Dr. Majka added.

“While this study’s sample is small, it is the first to report the safety and feasibility of using bone marrow derived cells to treat pediatric patients with complete spinal cord injury,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., editor of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “The treatment resulted in a degree of neurological and quality-of-life improvement in the study participants.”