With no options for the repair of spinal cord injuries, many with paralyzing injuries are left with little hope for recovery. Now researchers at Rush are exploring a new therapy using stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries within the first 14 to 30 days of injury. Rush is one of only five centers in the country currently studying this new approach.
“This is a new era where we are now able to test whether a dose of stem cells delivered directly to the injured site can have an impact on motor or sensory function,” said Richard G. Fessler, MD, PhD, professor of neurological surgery at Rush.
“If we could generate even modest improvements in motor or sensory function, it would result in significant improvements in quality of life.”
Fessler is the principal investigator at Rush of the study involving nerve cells known as oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, which potentially can make poorly-working nerves function better. A San Francisco Bay-area biotechnology company, Asterias Biotherapeutics, develops the cells and is sponsoring the study. Donors like Jennifer and John Beard; Elizabeth and Emmanuel Edozien, PhD; Molly and Jim Hamman; Monica and Andy Johnson; and Ann and Steve Potter have provided critical support for this kind of work done by Fessler.
The clinical trial involves testing three escalating doses of the special cells, known as AST-OPC1, to treat individuals with a cervical spinal cord injury that resulted in partial or total paralysis of arms, legs and torso. For this therapy to have a chance to work, the spinal cord has to be in continuity and not completely severed. Patients must be able to start the treatment within 25 days of their injury.
“If this treatment proves to be safe and effective, in the future, it also might be used for peripheral nerve injury or other conditions that affect the spinal cord, such as multiple sclerosis or ALS,” Fessler said.