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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

Stem Cells for ALS: Inside a Clinical Trial

ALS Patient Volunteers for Stem Cell Transplants Into Spinal Cord
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Stem Cells for ALS

Jerome lives in Auburn, Ala., but has been making the two-hour drive to Glass' ALS clinic at Emory in Atlanta every six months since 2003.

The day before his surgery, he's been put through a full day of tests: muscle function tests, mental tests, blood tests, heart and lung tests, the works. 

"It was in March of 2011 when they approached me about doing this clinical trial. I said yeah, I'll do it," Jerome recalls. "I mean, why not?"

There are plenty of reasons why Jerome might not want to participate. Even patients who know they are dying have a lot to lose. Precious months of life can be lost. Efforts to slow disease can backfire, making patients much worse much faster. And when surgery is involved -- particularly surgery not just on the spine but on the spinal cord itself -- there's a very real risk of death.

Why would Jerome risk everything he and his family still had? The magic words "stem cell."

Type those words into an Internet search engine and you'll find dozens of clinics offering stem cell cures for nearly every chronic disease on earth, including ALS. Some shady clinics profit from the hopes raised by the central role of stem cells in regenerative medicine. Real stem cell research, however, is moving at the slower pace that science demands.

"People travel around the world to get 'stem cell' treatment," Glass says. "So unless we prove it works or it doesn't, people with no other options will pay large sums to get this. And that is wrong."

Glass suspects that the nerve wasting in ALS involves an unhealthy environment in the tissues surrounding nerve cells. Part of that unhealthy environment may be the excess of a DNA building block, glutamate, in the brains and spinal cords of ALS patients. Another part may be that cell signals supporting nerve health may be lost.

Neural stem cells -- stem cells committed to becoming part of the nervous system but still able to become different kinds of nerve cells -- might be the answer. These stem cells produce a "glutamate transporter" that carts off excess amino acid. And they also emit growth signals supporting nerve growth.

"These stem cells, I believe, are nurse cells," Glass says. "They are going to create the needed cells that are going to be supportive to the motor neurons."

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