The latest in stem cell research suggests that stem cells given in the vital period immediately after a stroke (known colloquially as the “golden hour”) could make major headway in recovery. A research team in Bolivia injected rats with stem cells thirty minutes after a stroke, and discovered that they had almost completely normal brain function restored within two weeks. The team says that this has serious potential in human trials. Their study was led by Dr. Exuperio Diez-Tejedor from La Paz University Hospital, and supports previous studies that point in a similar direction: stem cells can be useful in treating stroke patients because they aid the body’s ability to repair tissue damage. The stem cells used in this study were multipotent stromal cells extracted from fat and bone marrow. These are the types of stem cells that people are talking about when they talk of “master cells,” the kind that can differentiate into many different cell types. Researchers hope that they will ultimately replace cells that are lost through disease or injury. The Bolivian study was published in the open-access journal Stem Cell Research and Therapy.
The controversy surrounding stem cells, at least in the United States, has been primarily centered around embryonic stem cells; but in this study, Dr. Diez-Tejedor was able to use “allogenic” (foreign) cells from other rats, and stated: “Improved recovery was seen regardless of origin of the stem cells, which may increase the usefulness of this treatment in human trials. Adipose (fat)-derived cells in particular are abundant and easy to collect without invasive surgery.” This is outstanding news, as it implies that further research can be done and treatments be created without the destruction of embryos, effectively removing the politics from this branch of medicine. The team seems incredibly optimistic about their results, stating that they believe they might even be able to stop the “chain reaction” of cellular damage that results when the initial injury destroys cells in the surrounding areas. They continued, “From the viewpoint of clinical translation allogenic stem cells are attractive because they can be easily obtained from young healthy donors, amplified, and stored for immediate use when needed after a stroke.” This implies that the usage of adult stem cells collected in a similar manner to that of a blood drive could ultimately provide a stroke treatment that would be immediately available to a suffering patient, just like donor blood. As exciting as this is, Dr. Clare Walton of the British organization The Stroke Association put a gentle damper on the enthusiasm, telling BBC News that human trials will not be happening anytime soon: “Stem cells are an incredibly interesting area of stroke research and the results of this study provide further insight into their potential use for stroke recovery. However, we are a long way off these types of treatments being used in humans and a lot more research is needed.”
Despite the payoff of studies such as this one being so far in the future, the data suggesting that adult stem cells could be so incredibly useful should be heartening for those who have been disappointed by the political interference in this branch of medical research to date.