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New Stem Cell Study Shows Promise for Spinal Cord Injuries

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have created neural stem cells that may help to treat spinal cord injuries.

The project has created neural stem cells from human pluripotent stem cells.

Pluripotent stem cells can differentiate into all the cells found in the three primary layers of the body. These layers comprise the ectoderm layer, which contains the skin and nervous system; the endoderm layer, which houses the stomach, intestines, lungs, endocrine system and organs such as liver, pancreas and spleen; and the mesoderm layer, which is made up of bone, cartilage and other connective tissues and blood vessels.

"Pluripotent stem cells are important to the development of the entire body," said Dr. Bill Johnson, a Dallas, Texas, stem cell physician.

Like other types of stem cells, pluripotent stem cells can renew infinitely, creating new copies of themselves.

The ability to differentiate and regenerate without limit makes stem cells powerful healers for health conditions and serious injuries that affect the spinal cord.

This new study is not the first of its kind; in fact, many projects have focused on how human pluripotent stem cells can be used to create new spinal cord cells. Although studies have shown progress, advancements have been slow.

In this new study, the USC researchers grafted lab-grown neural stem cells created from human pluripotent stem cells into the damaged spinal cords of rats. After the graft, the study authors noticed the grafts contained high levels of excitatory neurons and had large numbers of axons that spread over long distances. They also saw that stem cells supplied their target structures with nerves and helped to regenerate areas of the corticospinal tract, a portion of the spinal cord containing axons that begin in the cerebral cortex and reach down to the synapse of the brainstem and spinal cord.

These axons are important for voluntary motor function.

These exciting results of the project show that the UCSD project was successful in creating a scalable source of human spinal neural stem cells. Their success may mean new treatments for spinal cord injury sufferers.

The UCSD study authors also hope their project can help treat conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), progressive muscular atrophy, hereditary spastic paraplegia and spinocerebellar ataxia. These conditions belong to a group of genetic diseases that affect humans' ability to move.

The spinal cord is the collection of nerves housed in the spinal column that serve to transmit signals from the brain to the rest of the body. If it is injured, motor, reflex and sensory capabilities below the site of injury may be affected.

"Individuals living with spinal cord injuries often face limited mobility or become completely immobile. They also often experience difficulty breathing or digesting food and frequently struggle with urinary and fecal incontinence because their injury impacts these body systems," Johnson said.

Incomplete, or partial, injuries to the spinal cord are increasing in prevalence, according to research. The higher up on the spinal cord the injury occurs, the more serious the effects of the damage.

Many spinal injuries occur as a result of accidents, such as car crashes, falls and sporting events.

According to SpinalCord.com, there are approximately 17,500 new spinal cord injuries each year in the United States. This number does not include those individuals who died at the time of their spinal cord injury.

Currently, it is estimated that between 245,000 and 353,000 people are living in the U.S. with a spinal cord injury as of 2017.

Sources:
University of California, San Diego. "Created line of spinal cord neural stem cells shows diverse promise." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 August 2018.
SpinalCord.com. 2017 Spinal Cord Injury Statistics You Ought to Know
6 January 2018.

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