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Update: Using Transplanted Nerve Cells To Treat Stroke Patients Shows Promise

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have furthered their testing of a new experimental treatment for stroke victims. The treatment involves the delicate implantation of nerve cells in the region of the brain damaged by stroke. The hope is that the implanted nerve cells will restore function to the area of the brain damaged by the stroke. This may allow stroke victims to regain some lost capabilities such as use of a hand or repair of faulty memory.

In the study, researchers took tumor cells and transplanted them into the brains of 12 stroke patients who had significant mobility problems.   Twenty-four weeks after the cells were transplanted, 50% of the patients showed significant improvement. PET scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging of the patients’ brains showed increased metabolic activity in the areas of the brain where the new cells were placed. 

However, improvements were not seen in all of the stroke patients.  In fact, some of the patients worsened during the 24-week observation period.  The researchers hope additional studies and the increased use of monitoring equipment will help determine how the transplanted cells affect brain functions.

Douglas Kondziolka, MD is the neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who led the study and performed the treatments. Dr. Kondziolka has specialized in minimally invasive brain surgery including tumor biopsies, nerve injections, and delicate operations for Parkinson's disease. Each of these treatments is performed through fine needles using computed tomography (CT) image guidance and a stereotactic frame mounted on the patient's head to create a physical landmark on the CT images.

CT guidance using the stereotactic frame is a critical component of this experimental procedure. Doctors must first screw a rigid metal frame into the bones of the patient's skull. The process of mounting a stereotactic frame to a patient's head is routine in the treatment of other brain disorders such as the radiotherapy of brain cancer and other brain tumors. The stereotactic frame and CT images aid surgeons in the precise physical guidance of long, fine needles into the small portion of the brain injured by the stroke.

The basis of this treatment started in 1984 when cell biologist Peter W. Andrews found that he could use retinoic acid (a chemical related to vitamin A) to coax embryonal cancer cells to turn into neurons (nerve cells). Layton BioScience has produced the laboratory-grown nerve cells under license. These cells have now been used in the dozen treatments performed as part of the trial.

While the preliminary results suggest that transplanted cells holds promise for stroke patients, it will take several years, and additional studies involving larger numbers of patients, before researchers will be able to determine whether this treatment can, in fact, help to repair the devastation left by a stroke.   According to Dr. Kondziolka, future research may focus on whether implanted cells could help treat spinal cord injuries and Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder. 

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