According to a recent study and trial performed at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo, Alto, California, stroke patients are regaining movement, talking capabilities, and feeling, when injected with stem cells directly into the damaged area of their brain.
While researchers are being overly cautious not to deem these results as definitive proof of a cure for stroke patients, preliminary research suggests that injecting adult stems cells directly into the brain may give stroke patients a new shot at recovery long after their stroke occurred. Study lead author Dr. Gary Steinberg, chair of neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine (SUSM) stressed that “This isn’t the first stem cell trial for stroke, and we’re in the early phase, with only 18 patients. But after injecting stem cells directly into the brain of chronic stroke patients, we were blown away,” he said.
While Steinberg is enthusiastic about the results he is cautioning that they “don’t want to oversell this.” “These were patients who had significant motor deficits for six months or more,” “People who had a hard time moving their arm or leg, or walking. People for whom we have no real treatment. But after the injections, we saw improvement in all 18 patients, as a group, within a month. Within days, some were lifting their arms over their head. Lifting their legs off their bed. Walking, when they hadn’t in months or years. The results were very exciting.”
Although on average 800,000 Americans experience a stroke every year, there are roughly 7 million chronic stroke survivors in the United States. Many of these survivors experience things from loss of sensation, loss of motor functions, and some experience recurrent seizures, which can come and go throughout life.
“We’re used to 90 percent or more of stroke recovery taking place in the first six months,” Steinberg said. “So the thinking has been that we really can’t restore function in chronic stroke patients because their circuits are dead.” The injected stem cells (which die within a few months) don’t actually heal the damaged part of the brain but instead trick your brain into thinking it’s still developing in the womb. According to Steinberg, “we think these cells turn the adult brain into a neonatal or infant brain. And infants recover very well after a stroke because their brains have greater plasticity, and the ability to form new connections between cells already in the brain.”
Steinberg said that “somehow putting these stem cells directly into the brain jumpstarts circuits we had thought were irreversibly damaged or dead, with remarkable results.” In essence, this processes helps your brain rewire your connecting tissue to teach another part of your brain to take over the functions that have been lost. In turn, normal or semi-normal functions return after just the first treatment. Here is how the trial process started.
First, the research team selected people who had severe, but not extreme, motor impairment from a stroke. Most had experienced their stroke at least one year prior to the study launch. Their average age was 61. One of the trial patients was Long Beach, Calif., resident Sonia Olea Coontz.
“I was 31 when I had my stroke on May 14, 2011,” she said. Between the strokes occurrence and her enrollment in the trial program in 2013 Coontz struggled with a debilitating loss of mobility. “I could only move my right arm very little,” she recalled. “And I was in a lot of pain. Same with my leg. Walking was very difficult. Every time I went to the hospital I was in a wheelchair because it was just a lot easier. And speaking was hard. I always needed someone to help me communicate.”
The experimental stem cell procedure began with doctors drilling a small hole through the skull. Patients had minimal anesthesia. In turn, neurosurgeons injected modified stem cells directly into multiple areas of the brain near the site of each patient’s stroke.
The result: with no apparent blood abnormalities or significant side effects, all of the patients experienced significant motor control recovery within the first month. As expected, younger patients tended to fare better the trials found. Overall mobility continued to improve throughout the first three months. Positive results were maintained at both the six-month and one-year follow-up appointments.
“It was amazing. After the surgery, the pain in my shoulder was gone. My arm, I could move it all the way up to the ceiling and back. And my leg was stronger. I didn’t use a wheelchair after that. Ever,” explained Coontz. In a clear voice, Coontz added she “was also much better with speaking. I still needed a little help. But my words were stronger. And it continued to get better. Even now it’s still getting better.”
As much as science loves sound explanations, “We’re still not exactly sure what’s happening,” admitted Steinberg. They are positive the newly added stems cells aren’t growing new connective tissue, but somehow or another feeling is returning, and rewiring is the only reasonable explanation doctors can come up with. As the research team embarks on a larger study involving 156 chronic stroke patients, doctors involved in the trial urged caution.
“The results do sound amazing,” he said. “But keeping in mind that everyone has long been looking for a miracle cure for stroke, it’s really premature to draw conclusions. This is one very small study that was really set up to establish safety. More work will be needed.”
But for patients like Coontz, the jury is already in.
“The other treatments before surgery didn’t work,” she said. “Not really. I felt like my whole body was dead. Like it wasn’t working at all. Rehab didn’t help. But after the surgery, it felt like my body was all of a sudden awake.”
The study was published online June 2 in the journal Stroke.
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