Spinal cord injuries can be devastating for patients, negatively impacting the quality of life that they may experience, while simultaneously affecting them and their families and loved ones. Spinal cord injuries can range from relatively minor to ones that leave patients unable to move from the waist down (paraplegia) or from the shoulders down (quadriplegia). And there are many potential causes of spinal cord injuries, ranging from sports accidents to car accidents. These are not the only causes, however. According to the Mayo Clinic, infectious diseases may also cause spinal cord injuries.
Statistics indicate that approximately 17,500 people suffer spinal cord injuries each year. Although these injuries can impact anyone, they are most commonly seen in younger men, primarily because these injuries are often driven by lifestyle choices that people may make. Yet, despite efforts to more effectively treat these spinal cord injuries and restore full quality of life, traditional medical treatments have largely been unsuccessful.
Due to this fact, medical professionals have increasingly turned their attention to stem cells and how these stem cells could be used to treat spinal cord injuries.
Current Spinal Cord Injury Treatments
In short, there is no way to reverse damage to the spinal cord that doesn’t include replacing the old cells, like with stem cells. However, there are some treatment options available as to prevent the injury becoming worse, especially immediately during or after the injury event. With any luck, some patients can return to an active and normal life through these means without having to resort to stem cells, which is still a clinical and expensive treatment.
Most of what can be done for a spinal cord injury is at the scene. These require the patient to remain motionless in order to prevent shock. Immobilizing the neck and spinal cord can help reduce further injury and complications, not to mention maintaining steady breathing. Surgery is often necessary for this type of injury. Some medication, particularly methylprednisolone, can be used, but the side effects of blood clots and illness usually outweigh the benefits.
Rehabilitation and Education
In the long run, doctors make a priority to prevent problems with other parts of the body as a result of spinal cord injuries. Blood clots, respiratory infections, pressure ulcers and other issues have been known to arise.
Otherwise, rehabilitation is almost always recommended to rebuild muscle strength while in the early stages of recovery. Education on how to prevent further complications in day-to-day life is also given to patients with these types of injuries, along with learning new skills to help through their new situation.
With treatment for spinal cord injuries being severely limited, there is little wonder why doctors and researchers have turned to the idea of using stem cells to rebuild and replace damaged cells. However, these stem cells can’t just be injected in any traditional sense. They need to be placed accurately in an environment where they can grow. This is where 3D printing comes in.
3D Printing Stem Cells: What Does This Mean?
Recognizing the fact that traditional treatment methods have not been able to fully improve patients’ quality of life, medical professionals are shifting their attention to exploring stem cells and how stem cells can improve functioning for individuals with spinal cord injuries. The pioneering study in this sphere came out of the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine and Institute of Engineering.
Given the complexity of spinal cord injuries, it should not be surprising that this study involved multiple steps. The first step was for scientists, working alongside engineers and computer scientists, to create a 3D model of the human spinal cord. This model is as accurate as possible, and is based on imaging tests from patients in the real world. The scientists then injected stem cells into the model; and, from there, the model was implanted into the test subject (in this case, the test subjects were animals, given the fact that this is an early stage project). And, the results were exactly what the scientists were hoping for. These implanted stem cells spurred the body to begin to produce more neurons. This neuron production is essential, since often following a spinal cord accident neurons die; and this neuron death causes a wide range of complications.
Join our Stem Cell Discussion & Information Facebook Group today!
Printing Stem Cells
However, the process of 3D printing isn’t entirely delicate or fast. Every time doctors use 3D bioprinting, they have a risk of causing irreversible damage to the stem cells. Scientists have gone around this problem by printing out a small amount of stem cells on a type of scaffolding, then allowing them to grow and divide in a productive environment. This way, doctors can grow a spinal cord in a lab rather quickly without wasting or unnecessarily destroying materials. The scaffold even allows for the cells to grow the correct length that the implant needs to be. Using this method is also faster, as implants for a typical animal model takes about two seconds. Researchers were also able to scale the same method to human spinal cord sizes, printing a four centimeter sized implant within 10 minutes.
In 2015, scientists from Tsingua University of China and Drexel University of Philadelphia have perfected the printing method even further. These researchers have taken to using a hydrogel grid construct for the stem cells to grow. The grid ensures that 90 percent of the stem cells live through the bioprinting process and remain capable of duplication and self-renewal. Cells even grow faster on the grid than on a cultured flat surface and remain effective longer.
Clinical Testing: Stem Cells and Spinal Cord Injuries
There have been tests performed on rats to see how well the 3D bioprinted stem cell implants fair. The results so far have been very positive. The implants repaired damage to spinal cord tissue as well as improved motor function for up to six months after treatment.
Challenges With 3D Printing
A common problem with these sorts of implants is the lack of blood circulation and eventual death of the cells. The lack of circulation is caused by the absence of vascularized tissue resulting in little support for blood vessels to grow support tissue and provide nutrients. In the study regarding the rats with the 3D bioprinted implants, their bodies compensated for this problem. Scientists observed blood vessels infiltrating the implants as if they were always part of the body, allowing for healthy blood flow and the implant’s sustainable success.
Overcoming Obstacles With Additional Clinical Trials
Before moving on to human patients, scientists plan to continue clinical trials on larger animals first. The focus of these trials is to estimate how long the new neuronal network will last while further improving the technology with specific proteins. Regardless, the steps undergone so far have been nothing but beneficial to the research. In addition to the scaffolding providing support for cell growth, it continues to help after implantation. The scaffolding provides a type of shield against the often harmful environment resulting from a spinal cord injury, allowing the stem cells to work the way they must.
What Comes Next
Scientists have been hopeful that 3D bioprinting is going to be the future of treatment options, especially for patients with severe spinal cord injuries. As of now, this idea is still in the trial phase, but testing is underway and improvements to this method are always coming along. Soon, treatments will begin on animals larger than typical rodents, and we’ll be able to learn much more about how these stem cells will react and grow in a more complex body. Until then, treatment options will still continue to expand by other means so long as medical technology continues to improve.
Learn More About Stem Cell Therapy
Download our FREE Stem Cell Report
Click below to download our free educational report, Stem Cell 101!