The sample size is far too small to prove much yet, but doctors in Britain have seen “very encouraging” results from a new therapy that delivers stem cells extracted from patients’ bone marrow to their brains within days of having suffered a stroke.
According to a report published in August in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, all five patients who took part in the pilot study showed improvements over a six-month follow-up period.
This is significant because all but one of the five had the most severe type of stroke from which only four per cent of patients usually recover and regain independence. A story carried in the Daily Mail reported that all four of these severe-stroke patients were alive and three were independent after half a year.
In the trial, believed to be the of its kind, the patients received purified CD34+ cells, which are stem cells found in the bone marrow. The patients got the these cells within a week of their attacks (in previous studies stem cells were infused months afterwards) to release chemicals to spur growth of new tissue and blood vessels in the parts of the brain damaged by stroke.
Dr Soma Banerjee, a lead author and Consultant in Stroke Medicine at London’s Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, urged caution: “This study showed that the treatment appears to be safe and that it’s feasible to treat patients early when they might be more likely to benefit. The improvements we saw in these patients are very encouraging, but it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions … We need to do more tests to work out the best dose and timescale for treatment before starting larger trials.”
Should the therapy prove effective in larger scale clinical trials, the implications are enormous. Stroke is a major killer and disabler. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, there are 50,000 strokes in Canada each year — a rate of one every 10 minutes.
The University of Toronto’s Dr. Cindi Morshead, whose research explores using stem cell s in regenerative medicine, called the study “quite comprehensive.” She pointed out that the researchers screened more than 80 potential candidates for the study before selecting the five who got the treatment. “It was a safety trial so they really had to be careful in their selection. But five out of 80 people able to benefit from this, that’s still pretty good. ”
As someone who works in the field, she’s optimist about the results. “My takeaway is that it’s exciting. Two of the people in the study were quite young: 45 and 47. It’s hugely significant — they’ve only lived half their lives.”
For a comprehensive look at using stem cells to treat stroke, click here.