In a recent medical study, Stanford researchers say a new stem cell experiment is transforming the lives of stroke patients.
The use of stem cells is allowing patients with little hope for recovery to suddenly talk and walk again, according to the study published in the Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases.
“We did not expect to see significant recovery,” said Dr. Gary Steinberg, chief of neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine. “We were quite startled by the remarkable recovery some of the patients showed.”
Steinberg and a team of researchers released the study on Thursday.
Researchers did not anticipate seeing results this early in the process. The test was meant to be an initial phase in the study, and only included 18 patients of varying ages and who had strokes at least six months before.
The study included now 36-year-old Sonia Coontz of Long Beach. She had a stroke at 31, and two years later when she participated, could barely move her arm.
Doctors drilled a small hole in Coontz's and the other patients' skulls, and then injected modified adult stem cells directly into the region of the brain impacted by stroke.
Only a day after Coontz’s surgery, she could raise her arm above her head.
“She was what we call one of our miracle patients. She showed some improvement within 24 hours. By the next day she was already moving her arm well. Over the next month, she started talking better, walking better. Within 6 months, her lifestyle was completely changed. She got married and now she’s pregnant,” Steinberg said.
The stem cells do not replace brain cells. In fact, they die within a couple of months, according to Steinberg.
However, within that time, the stem cells somehow trick the brain into thinking it’s much younger than it is.
“In a sense, we think they are turning the adult brain in to a neonatal or infant brain that recovers very well after a stroke or other types of injury,” Steinberg said. “In the past we thought patients with chronic stroke had circuits which were dead or irreversibly damaged. We never thought they would ever work again no matter what we did. And this tells us that’s simply not true.”
About half the patients made improvements authors considered clinically significant, “meaning it changed their lifestyle,” Steinberg said.
Many of the rest made significant improvements, but a few in the patient group did not improve.
“While not every single patient improved – and you wouldn’t expect that – it was quite remarkable that so many of the patients improved to the extent that they did,” Steinberg said.
However, doctors say larger studies are needed before we get too excited.
“There’s a lot of hype about stem cells. And while we think there’s a lot of hope, we also want to be cautious in how we proceed,” Steinberg said.
Stanford researchers are currently conducting a larger study with 156 people, and another study using stem cell therapy on chronic traumatic brain injury patients.
Doctors say in the future, stem cells could help other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, ALS or even Alzheimer’s.