In a medical first, a team of researchers from Zurich, Switzerland has successfully restored feeling in the bodies of paralyzed patients by injecting them with neural stem cells.
The group’s study involved injecting 20 million neural stem cells directly into the spinal cords of three partially paralyzed patients. The stem cells, which were harvested from donated fetal brain tissue, were administered between four and eight months after the patients’ injuries had occurred. The study participants also received immunosuppressive drugs to safeguard the risk of the body rejecting the cells.
Before the trial, none of the three patients had any sensation below their nipples. Six months after the stem cells had been administered, two of the patients could feel touch and heat as far down as their belly buttons.
"The fact we've seen responses to light touch, heat and electrical impulses so far down in two of the patients is very unexpected," Stephen Huhn, one of the procedure’s developers, told New Scientist. "They're really close to normal in those areas now in their sensitivity," he adds.
The researchers will eventually administer the neural stem cells to ten more patients and will continue to monitor those that have already received the injection.
According to Huhn, there are a few reasons why the stem cells might improve sensitivity. One possibility is that they could be helping to restore myelin insulation to damaged nerves. It’s also plausible that the stem cells could be enhancing the function of existing nerves, or perhaps replacing them all together.
The research was presented last week in London at the annual International Spinal Cord Society.
Image: Nevit Dilmen/ Wikimedia Commons