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Could stem cells help people recover after a stroke?

June 13, 2013
Stem cells have been a promising medical treatment for years now but rigorous clinical trials are needed to show they work and that they are safe. Researchers at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow have just revealed some exciting results from a small trial of stem cells in stroke patients. Just nine patients were involved as the trial was really only looking at safety and whether injecting stem cells into their brains caused any problems, such as an immune reaction. “It is good news that the stem cell treatment didn’t cause any of these problems. Even better is the surprising finding that half of the stroke patients showed some improvement in their health in the weeks and months that followed treatment,” says Dr Paul Jarman, Consultant Neurologist at The Physicians’ Clinic.

Improvements seen in stroke patients

The improvements in individual patients were small – but for the people and their families, those small changes had a big impact. One of them, Frank Marsh, aged 80, was treated with the stem cells three years after a major stroke left him with little movement in his left arm and hand. Two years later, he can open and close his hand and can grip larger objects. This means he can be more independent as he can dress unaided and make coffee and tea. “These changes were unexpected because people tend to show very little improvement in function after six months of recovery from a stroke. Three years down the line, it is very unusual. The fact that similar improvements occurred in four of the other patients in the trial, and that a trial in Japan also find the same thing suggests that the stem cell treatment may be responsible,” explains Dr Jarman.

Will stem cell treatment be available soon?

This early stage trial, run by Professor Keith Muir (University of Glasgow) has taken 2 years and the researchers now need to follow the patients up for another 18 months to check out whether the improvements are definitely due to the stem cell treatments. As Dr Jarman points out, “Sometimes people in clinical trials improve just because they get a lot of extra care and attention. It seems likely that the treatment can help people quite a long time after their stroke, which is very exciting but Professor Muir and his team need to be sure why the changes have occurred.There is still a lot of work to do before stem cell treatment becomes a reality in clinical practice but this may be a small step towards achieving the goal of restorative therapy after stroke.”   Photo credit: Follow the Money – The Politics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Russo E, PLoS Biology Vol. 3/7/2005, e234. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030234

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