Science may be one step closer to treating spinal cord injuries that result in lifelong paralysis. In a stunning medical discovery, a team of doctors was able to graft human neural progenitor cells into monkeys that had suffered spinal cord injuries. The grafts generated hundreds of thousands of axons and synapses. The monkeys demonstrated forelimb functioning after the graft procedure, leading researchers to hope to generate similar results in humans in the future.
The researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine praised the results as a significant discovery in spinal cord research. The ultimate goal in these clinical trials is to permanently regenerate injured axons to restore meaningful functioning to paralyzed limbs. Prior trials using rodents as test subjects produced similar results. Successfully replicating these findings in rhesus monkeys was the next step toward working with more human-like subjects.
Still, there are a number of inherent challenges in attempting to grow and support functional grafted stem cells in spinal cord injury sufferers. One of these obstacles is that the site of the spinal cord injury may contain myelin proteins that specifically hinder the growth of the cells. The myelin proteins, which combine to produce a sheath that protects nerve fibers, is devoid of growth-promoting agents that would successfully support the regeneration of nerve cells.
Researchers have found methods to address these issues as demonstrated by their current work with rhesus monkeys. In these trials, the researchers extracted stem cells from the central nervous systems of 8-week-old human embryonic spinal cords. These particular stem cells did contain growth agents that generated axon development and did not show signs of regression after interaction with inhibitors in the adult’s central nervous system.
While the results are encouraging, questions about the long-term effects of the grafts can only be answered as research progresses to more complex living beings before eventually conducting trials on humans. For example, the researchers noted that the grafting processes they used on the rodents were not suitable for larger primates. A number of factors had to be altered to account for issues in scale, immunosuppression and other variables. It was important for researchers to experiment with larger animals before beginning human trials to gain valuable information about the processes involved in grafting and maintaining the cells.
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