For decades, spinal cord injuries (SCI) have been a predominant focus of stem cell research, with scientists around the world hoping to improve or better manage these debilitating injuries. In the U.S., an estimated 282,000 people live with a spinal cord injury, with over 12,000 new cases occurring each year.1 Developments in this area of medicine may make a big impact in the quality of life for many.
Stem Cell Research on SCI in the Lab2
Researchers have taken a number of different approaches to understanding if stem cells can help treat SCI. For instance, some stem cell research work in SCI has been focused on identifying if there is a specific type of nerve cell best for transplantation directly into an injured spinal cord. Researchers have also been studying if there is a particular stem cell that is best at creating new nerve cells for the purpose of transplantation. Other research studies evaluate if transplanted cells become part of the existing nerve system, which they hypothesize could help create new pathways that transmit signals from the nervous system to muscles. Scientists are also trying to improve the ability of transplanted cells to become part of the nerve system.
Regenerating the Injured Spinal Cord
For the first time, researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, with colleagues in Japan and Wisconsin, report that they have successfully directed neural stem cell-derived neurons to regenerate lost tissue in the damaged corticospinal tracts of rats, resulting in improved movement.3
One of the most important motor systems in humans, the cortospinal tract is made up of bundles of nerve fibers that travel from the cerebral cortex to the spinal cord, conducting impulses that help control voluntary motor functions4 – basically moving muscles in the body to do things like walking or picking up a fork. According to the researchers, the corticospinal projection has never been successfully regenerated before this research, though many have tried.3
The researchers hypothesized that neural progenitor cells that were primed specifically towards a spinal cord rather than brain type nerve cell fate, could support regeneration. And, surprise! They did. In the study, multipotent neural progenitor cells derived from very early stage spinal cord tissue in a developing rat embryo were grafted into sites of spinal cord injury in adult rats, directing the cells to specifically develop with spinal cord fates, and they did – amazingly well – forming functional synapses that improved the front limb movements in the injured rats.5 Their results challenge the existing belief that corticospinal neurons lacked the internal mechanisms needed for regeneration.
The researchers believe that the potential for translation to humans looks more promising, having cleared this major hurdle, but much more work needs to done before moving to humans.3
If you have questions about stem cell research, CBR’s staff is available at 888.CORD BLOOD or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Facts and Figures at a Glance.” National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC). University of Alabama at Birmingham. Web. Accessed: May 10, 2016.
- “Spinal Cord Injury Fact Sheet.” CIRM, California’s Stem Cell Agency. Web. Accessed: May 10, 2016.
- “Stem cells used to successfully regenerate damage in corticospinal injury.” Eureka Alert. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 28 March 2016. Web. Accessed: March 30, 2016. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/uoc–scu032316.php
- “Pyramidal Tracts.” Wikipedia, The Free Encylopedia, Web. Accessed: May 10, 2016.
- Kayoda K. et al. Spinal cord reconstitution with homologous neural grafts enables robust corticospinal regeneration. Nature Medicine 22, 479–487(2016). Accessed: March 30, 2016.