As early as the 1950s, stem cell research began when it was discovered that bone marrow contained at least two different types of stem cells. Over the course of the subsequent 60 years, stem cells have been found in many organs and tissues, including the brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood/vessels, the heart, and more, and have the remarkable capacity to regenerate and replicate into new cells for the body. Scientists and researchers continue to better understand stem cell functioning and their restorative therapeutic powers. In recent years, stem cells have shown potential to treat traumatic brain injury (TBI), certain cancers, Alzheimer’s Disease, spinal cord injury, and stroke, among a plethora of other conditions and diseases.
Types of Stem Cells & Their Functions
There are two types of stem cells: Embryonic (3-5 days old) and Adult Stem Cells. Embryonic cells are pluripotent, or capable of differentiating into one of many cell types. Embryonic stem cells may easily grow into any cell type within the body and exist successfully when extracted for lab cultures, while adult stem cells typically mirror the same cell type as the ones surrounding them. Adult stem cells are unspecialized, which means they do not have a specialized function within the body. They can potentially become specialized tissues or organs in several stages; internal signals directed by the cell’s genes trigger each stage of deeper specialization.
How Stem Cell-Based Therapies Work
Stem cell therapy initiates the healing process within damaged, dysfunctional, or less than optimally functioning cells. Researchers extract stem cells and cultivate them in labs. From there, they test and develop specialized cell types such as blood or nerve cells. Specialized cells can be implanted in patients to initiate the reparation of diseased or injured cells, and ultimately restore healthy blood, tissues, and organs. Cell transplantation as a therapeutic prospect is “based on the potential for transplanted cells to differentiate into region-specific cells and integrate into the host tissue to replace lost cells in the injured brain; alternatively, transplanted cells could provide neurotransmitters or trophic support to the host tissue to facilitate survival or regeneration,” write Andrew Rolfe and Dong Sun in the book Brain Neurotrauma: Molecular, Neuropsychological, and Rehabilitation Aspects.
Potential Uses of Stem Cells
Researchers and scientists want to better understand how diseases occur: the processes of abnormal cell division and differentiation. This progression is central to understanding disease and tissue malfunction and could eventually lead to treatment solutions. According to the Mayo Clinic, stem cells are currently being used to test new medications for safety and effectiveness on a wide variety of human cell types in a controlled environment outside of the human body. Clinical studies are also being conducted for regenerative medicine to test stem cell treatment for a variety of conditions including: Alzheimer's Disease, cancer, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, Lyme disease, lymphoma, macular degeneration, osteoarthritis, Parkinson's disease, pulmonary disease, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal cord injury, and stroke. Success with stem cell treatment could supplement or replace organ and tissue transplantation.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Research
A National Institutes of Health publication relays, “heightened levels of cell proliferation and neurogenesis have been observed in response to brain trauma or insults suggesting that the brain has the inherent potential to restore populations of damaged or destroyed neurons. This raises the possibility of developing therapeutic strategies aiming at harnessing this neurogenic capacity to repopulate and repair the damaged brain.” Experimental successes in cell replacement in neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s, inspired TBI researchers to investigate the approach for TBI treatment. Though the symptoms may be many, brain trauma often causes learning and memory deficits, which are the longest lasting and most debilitating effects of TBI. Notably, though, the greatest potential for cognitive improvement is within two years immediately following injury—the sooner the better.
"Heightened levels of cell proliferation & neurogenesis have been observed in response to brain trauma or insults suggesting that the brain has the inherent potential to restore populations of damaged or destroyed neurons. This raises the possibility of developing therapeutic strategies aiming at harnessing this neurogenic capacity to repopulate & repair the damaged brain."
Thankfully, within the last 10 years, stem cells have been embraced as a promising TBI therapy. They can halt brain damage and encourage healing by moving to the injured site, reducing inflammation, and initiating a protective effect on the damaged tissue. Results of a cellular therapy clinical trial for traumatic brain injury (TBI), using a patient's own stem cells, showed that the therapy appeared to dampen the body's neuroinflammatory response to trauma and preserve brain tissue, according to researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. In the study of 25 patients, bone marrow harvesting, cell processing, and re-infusion occurred within 48 hours after injury, and imaging of white brain matter exhibited there was “structural preservation of critical regions of interest that correlated with functional outcomes and key inflammatory cytokines were down-regulated after bone marrow cell infusion.”
Stem Cells and Cord Blood Banking
“Pharmacological pre-clinical studies have demonstrated that treatment with autologous stem cells administered immediately after trauma may aid in reducing the immediate cognitive defects of TBI,” says Dr. Adrian Harel, who holds his PhD in neurobiology from the world-renowned Weizmann Institute of Science. Harel relays that studies have demonstrated improved neurologic function in patients with TBI after 6 months of stem cell therapy, and clinical trials have been initiated for children with TBI to receive stem cells from banked cord blood. To learn more about cord blood banking, visit Parent's Guide to Cord Blood Foundation.
Stem cells have the potential to restore, regenerate, and multiply new cell growth for many medical conditions, especially for neurodegenerative diseases that are typically more difficult to treat. Clinical trials and experimental studies exist that can provide hope for parents and loved ones impacted by traumatic brain injury. The National Institutes of Health are a great resource for help in finding a clinical research trial.