ASPEN, COLORADO (Post Time News)—The lead researcher in embryonic stem cell therapies at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine is predicting that effective treatment to repair severed spinal cords with be available “within five years.”“This is really good news for people with spinal injuries,” Dr. Davies said.
Speaking at the CU Given Institute here in Aspen, Dr. Stephen Davies—an associate professor of neurosurgery based at the sprawling Anschutz Medical Center in Denver—said his work in repairing scar tissue and growing neural connections between the brain and the spinal cord also has potentially profound applications for patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), traumatic brain injury, and even diabetes. The key findings of Dr. Davis and his CU team—including his wife, Dr. Judith Davies—were published in the Journal of Biology online.Calling the results “remarkable,” Dr. Davies told the Aspen audience that within eight days and after just one treatment, 40 percent of rats with severed spinal cords were able to regain function undetectable from the uninjured rats in his experiment. He called the results a “robust effect” and “functional recovery.”
The breakthroughs could impact the 450,000 people in the United States with spinal cord disabilities, with 11,000 new cases appearng each year in the U.S. alone. Some 81 percent of the victims are male, Dr. Davies said, with 52 percent under 30 years of age. Only 18 percent of the accidents causing the disability to occur during sports and recreation, with most emanating from motor vehicle accidents—and among those over 65.
The key to the research is overcoming the barrier of scar tissue that grows in the spinal cord where the damage has occurred. In a nutshell, neurons in the brain send signals to other neurons in spinal chord; other sensory neurons also relay information and send it to the brain. This neural messages travel up and down the spinal chord.
“How do we form a bridge at the injury site?” Dr. Davies asked the audience at The Given. “Which is the right cell type?”
Nerve fibers are called “axons.” One key to the breakthrough are GLIA “glue” cells known as “astrocytes” or star cells. Dr. Davies called the astrocytes a “revolution in neuroscience.” Over ten years of research, he said his team developed a “micro injection system, “a Frankenstein-type experiment with adult neurons injected” into the spinal cords.
The result? “Growing axons like gangbusters” in degenerated spinal cords or rats.
Those axons are part of the reason the CU team has been able to bridge the formidable neurological barrier formed by scar tissue that forms quickly after the trauma and stops regeneration cold. For that reason, Dr. Davies said, his therapies will be far more effective immediately after injury, rather than on chronic spinal cord injury patients.
Dr. Davies also said there were “clear differences between the embryo and the adult” stem cells in his research: an “immature central nervous system (CNS) can reestablish a connection,” he said, “until two to three days after birth.” Any stem cells taken later in the cycle cause a “sharp a cutoff in regeneration.”
“Stem cell by definition can make all cells throughout the body,” he said, but adult “stem cells. are contributing to scar formation.”
As for the controversy over using embryonic stem cells in research, Dr. Davies said on the “Con Games with Michael Conniff” radio show in Aspen that though his research deploys an embryonic stem-cell line approved in August 2001 by President George W. Bush, his team can now remove stem cells from blastocysts with further injuring the cell, presumably defusing any controversy.
As of now, there are no treatments approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) that can repair spinal cord injury. Once severed, paralysis and loss of function occurs, with the symptoms worsening the higher the trauma happened on the spinal cord.