New Hope for Spinal Cord Injuries:
Stem Cell Transplantation
Shekar Kurpad, MD, PhD
Medical College of Wisconsin Neurosurgeon
“What we’ve learned so far is significant.”
Today, the damage that results from injuries in which the spinal cord is severed is irreversible, leaving approximately 250,000 Americans paralyzed. Over the last 10 years, stem cell research is yielding new possibilities for those with spinal cord injuries. Shekar Kurpad, MD, PhD, is involved in Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin’s research in neural stem cell transplantation and gives an overview of the progress.
Q: What has your research involved to this point?
This far we have had reasonable success with transplanting neural stem cells into neurobiologic models. Our experimental techniques are genetically modified to reflect the most realistic conditions possible.
Q: What have been some of the challenges your research has met?
There have been two aspects of the research that are posing challenges. One is that researchers in the past have tried transplanting the stem cells “as is” and found that, as they grow in the spinal cord after transplantation, they are only forming scar tissue, which of course does nothing to restore function to the spinal cord. We’re currently investigating ways to genetically modify the neural stem cells rather than transplanting them in their native form to see if we can influence what types of cells they become. The other challenge comes in assessing our success. Previously, the way we were doing this was with blinded observation. The observers monitor the neurobiologic models for resulting outcomes. Even if this observation was performed by a trained third-party observer there still exists a certain amount of subjectivity. We are now using fMRI as an objective tool to assess transplant outcomes. The use of fMRI gives us a straightforward assessment of the transplant techniques.
Q: How close is this research to being applied to humans?
It’s really still a long way into the future for human use. But, what we’ve learned so far is very significant. We now have a direct correlation from transplant to restored function. The next step is to continue with clinical research to refine the process and figure out why this correlation occurs.
Q: How does the spinal cord work?
Understanding how the spinal cord functions gives better insight into the damage spinal cord injury can do. The brain controls every action of the body and the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body by sending out electronic signals. Cells called neurons receive and process these signals. When neurons die in a spinal cord injury, the signals are interrupted. This break in connection is known as paralysis.
More information on spine disorders and spinal cord injury is available at Small Stones.