Repairing damage caused by spinal cord injury with stem cells

Although spinal cord injuries (SCI) are not as prevalent as other debilitating conditions, they can be particularly devastating. Patients often lose motor control and sensibility and require assistance with everyday tasks. Most people are familiar with the case of Christopher Reeve, an American actor who played Superman in the ’70s and ’80s. He suffered a cervical spinal cord injury and was left paralyzed from the neck down. Reeve became an advocate for research into a potential cure using stem cells.

chiropractor touching woman's back
In the future, spinal cord injuries will no longer rob people of their ability to move and use their bodies normally. Scientists are on the verge of making this a reality.

The World Health Organization estimates that every year up to 500,000 people suffer this type of injury worldwide. In Canada, approximately 85,000 people are currently living with some type of SCI.

The possibility of repairing damage sustained by the spinal cord is one of the most exciting potential applications of regenerative medicine. There have been promising advancements in this field and it is just a matter of time before they give way to actual treatments. Access to these treatments is just one of the many advantages of cell banking.

What is a spinal cord injury?

Inside the spinal column, which runs from the base of the skull to the coccyx, lies a fragile structure made up of nervous tissue. This is the spinal cord. Its job is to carry nerve signals from the brain to the rest of the body.

The spinal cord is very delicate. While it is protected by the vertebrae, it can easily be damaged either by trauma or disease. Injuries are graded according to their severity on a scale designed by the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA). The scale goes from A to E (A being a complete injury, where all motor and sensory function is lost. E represents normal function). The severity of the injury is inversely correlated with the probability of recovery. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, nearly half of all spinal cord injuries are complete.

In addition to the physical damage, spinal cord injuries are incredibly challenging in psychological terms. The more severe the injury, the greater the likelihood that the individual will lose the ability to care for himself. As reported in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, adults with SCI are at a higher risk of developing mental health disorders. Additionally, the rate of suicide increases three-fold among patients with this type of injury compared to the general population.

How do spinal cord injuries happen?

In a study published in Topics in Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation, researchers from the University of Alabama analyzed data from patients that sustained spinal cord injuries from 2005 to 2011. They found that automobile crashes (31.5% of cases) and falls (25.3%) account for more than half of all incidents. Other common causes are gunshot wounds, motorcycle crashes, and diving accidents. Although not frequent, diseases can cause spinal cord injury as well, specifically cancer, and osteoporosis.

Using stem cells, researchers are working on a cure for spinal cord injuries.
The spinal cord, located inside the spinal column, is extremely delicate. Injury to this area can cause paralysis.

Considering all causes, men account for 8 out of every 10 cases of spinal cord injury. Additionally, according to the Mayo Clinic, people are more likely to suffer traumatic cord injuries between the ages of 16 and 30. Avoiding risky behavior is the most effective strategy for preventing spinal cord injury.

What are the different types of spinal cord injuries?

In addition to the ASIA scale, which ranks injury by the severity of the damage, spinal cord injuries can be classified depending on the area affected. There are four types of spinal cord injury: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral.

Cervical Spinal Cord Injury

The uppermost portion of the spine (vertebrae C1 to C7) is called the cervical section. Traumatic cord injuries in this area can lead to quadriplegia or full paralysis. This is the sort of injury that actor Christopher Reeve sustained. He shattered his C1 and C2 vertebrae in a horseback riding accident. Baseball player Roy Campanella damaged his C5 and C6 vertebrae in an automobile accident.

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury

The thoracic spine is comprised of 12 vertebrae (T1 to T12) and it is located below the cervical section. An injury to this area could result in loss of use of the chest, upper back, and abdominals.

Lumbar Spinal Cord Injury

The lumbar section of the spine is located in the lower back. It comprises five vertebrae (L1 to L5). An injury to this area can leave an individual paraplegic, unable to move or feel anything below the point of injury. Deng Pufang, son of China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping, suffered a lumbar spinal cord injury and became paralyzed.

Sacral Spinal Cord Injury

The sacral section is located between the lumbar section and the coccyx. Injury to this area may cause loss of function in the hips and legs. Bladder function can be affected as well. Injuries to this section of the spine are less common than cervical, thoracic, or lumbar injuries.

Could regenerative medicine cure spinal cord injuries?

A discovery made by researchers John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, for which they won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine, may hold the key to repairing spinal cord injury. They found a way to induce adult cells, like those located in your hair follicles, to become pluripotent. Once this happens, these cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), can become any cell type in the body.

A team of researchers from Keio University in Japan injected mice that had suffered spinal cord injury with neural cells derived from human iPSCs. These cells were able to successfully migrate and differentiate into their appropriate neural lineages, and they performed synapses. This means that they became exactly the type of cell needed in the place of injury and they successfully communicated with each other.

According to the scientists, compared to the control group, the mice injected with iPSCs had a significantly better functional recovery. The results of this trial, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, are a step forward in the path towards eventually promoting complete functional recovery of spinal cord injury in humans.

How you can take action today

Once this method is perfected and made available to the public, doctors will need a cell sample that they can turn into neural cells to treat people who suffer from spinal cord injury. It is important to note that the sooner you bank your cells, the higher their therapeutic potential will be, not only to treat spinal cord injury but many other conditions like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and macular degeneration.

This means that the sooner you take action and have your live cells cryopreserved, the better prepared you will be to take advantage of the revolution of regenerative medicine that is coming. To learn more about the ways you can have your cells banked at Acorn, click here.