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Stem Cell Research Races Toward the Clinic

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"You have to know what you're doing, and the procedure takes about a month. You are mimicking a lot of steps in the differentiation that would normally happen [in real life], so you are coaxing the cells through an impressively complicated set of transitions. But the fact is that the conditions that we have apparently support that really quite efficiently," McKay tells WebMD.

Okay, so once you've got all these swell new stem cells, can they be used to possibly treat more than just ALS or spinal motor atrophy? Tracy McIntosh, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School have an answer. They showed that stem cells from the brain, when transplanted into the brains of adult mice with traumatic brain injury, produced a dramatic improvement in their ability to control movement for up to 12 weeks after injection. But although the treated mice were better able to move, they did not show any improvement in their ability to learn or remember a new task following brain injury.

"We were targeting the motor cortex [the region of the brain that controls movement] for injection of the cells, although some of the cells did seem to migrate into the region that is responsible for controlling memory, which is the hippocampus, but I don't think that enough of them got there," McIntosh tells WebMD. "In the future we're going to try to inject cells directly into the hippocampus to see if we can get more cells integrated into that region." McIntosh is the Robert Groff Professor of neurosurgery and director of the Head Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

McIntosh's collaborator on that study, Evan Snyder, MD, PhD, and his colleague Seth Finkelstein, MD, PhD, show in a separate study that treatment combining nerve stem cells with a growth factor enhances recovery in rats with strokes caused by a blockage of blood flow in the brain. The combination of the growth factor and the stem cells produced greater improvements in treated animals than either agent given alone.

The rapid advances in stem cell research and treatments may even allow physicians to act more quickly and more effectively when someone comes into the emergency room suffering from stroke or head trauma, says Snyder, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

"The new approach I suspect is not going to be what you do now, which is you admit a patient with trauma or with a stroke and maybe [try to prevent inflammation], but basically you watch what happens with the injury over a period of time, and then after a week or two when you see what's left of the deficit, then you begin thinking about repair," Snyder tells WebMD. "I think what's going to start happening now is that when somebody comes in with a stroke, or head trauma or spinal cord injury, we're going to snap into action, probably within the first 24 to 48 hours, if not sooner, using growth factor therapy, cellular therapies, anti-[cell death] therapies in some kind of elegantly orchestrated manner yet to be determined. I think we're going to start doing intervention a lot earlier than we ever thought about before."

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