There are some paraplegic rats that are now able to walk again, or that are at least coming close to doing so, and it's thanks to human stem cells. The cells essentially helped bridge a gap that scientists had introduced in the animals' spinal cords.
Led by Dr. Shulamit Levenberg, a team from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology started by harvesting stem cells from the membrane lining of human volunteers' mouths – stem cells can be induced to differentiate into any type of cell in the body. In this case, they were induced to differentiate into support cells that secrete factors for neural growth and survival.
The researchers also created engineered tissue that took the form of a three-dimensional scaffold. This tissue was "seeded" with the stem cells – and with human thrombin and fibrinogen, to stabilize and support neurons in the spinal cord – and then implanted onto the spinal cords of the paraplegic rats, at points where the cord had been completely severed.
Three weeks after the stem cells and tissue were introduced, 42 percent of the rats showed a significantly improved ability to support weight on their hind legs, and walk. Additionally, 75 percent of the rats began responding to stimuli of the hind legs and tail. There were also indications that the spinal cord was beginning to heal.
By contrast, a control group of paraplegic rats that didn't receive any implants showed no improvements in mobility or sensory responses.
It is worth noting that not all of the rats which received the stem cell implants showed any improvement. The scientists are still trying to determine why that was the case. Ultimately, they hope that the treatment could be used on people with spinal cord injuries.
"Although there is still some way to go before it can be applied in humans, this research gives hope," says Levenberg.
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
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