In Scotland, five stroke patients have been involved in an experimental clinical trial using stem cell treatments in an attempt to improve their condition.
Based at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital, the procedure has faced criticism as brain cells harvested from a fetus are injected into the brains of stroke patients. Talking at the International Society for Stem Cell Research conference hosted in Japan, the team have stressed that even though patients have shown "slight" improvement, it is too early to tell if this is due to the therapy.
The clinical trial is in its early stages, and doctors are primarily concerned with how safe the treatment is, rather than betting on vast improvements in stroke-patient functions. Instead, after beginning the trial in 2010, the team hope to use the next 18 months to see if improvements are due to the injected stem cells, or other factors.
Every participant is a man over 60, severely disabled by a stroke, and none have seen any signs of improvement for at least one year before starting the therapy.
The doctors hope that by injecting stem cells directly into the brain, it will encourage damaged brain tissue to repair itself -- and potentially lead to restoration in movement and speaking capabilities.
Five out of six patients have shown some improvement. Some of the stroke victims' speech is less slurred, hand movements have improved in one, and in another, leg strength and general stability is a little better.
Although the improvements are small and not exactly dramatic, the doctors running the trial were surprised -- as none of them believed stroke victims who had been disabled for so long would show any improvement at all.
However, the unknown factor is whether the stem cells are doing their job -- or it is the round-the-clock care the stroke victims are being given which is causing the "slight" improvements.
Michael Hunt, Chief Executive Officer of the company that produced the stem cells, has said that if successful, the technology could be used to grow cells so fetal harvesting would no longer be required. He said:
"We originally derived this material nine years ago from foetal tissue. But what we've been able to do with the technology is to grow cells from the original sample such that we don't have to source any further tissue."
If the trial proves a success, a treatment could be made available after approximately five years.
Image credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier