Every year, thousands of people suffer from traumatic brain injuries. Although every traumatic brain injury is different, the fact remains that as of now, many treatments fall short of helping patients make a full recovery. This is in part due to the limits of surgery, and in part due to the inherent risk that comes with surgical treatments. The unique properties of stem cells, however, may represent a new frontier for traumatic brain injury patients—and new opportunities for those suffering long-term symptoms.
Understanding Traumatic Brain Injuries
Traumatic brain injuries vary wildly, because essentially, a traumatic brain injury is usually caused by a jolt to the head. In fact, traumatic brain injuries are often caused by incidents like car accidents, falls, or sports injuries. A traumatic brain injury isn’t always in itself a severe injury, and they do not always result in long-term symptoms. Mild concussions are traumatic brain injuries; on the other end of the spectrum, so are severe injuries resulting from penetrating trauma. Some patients don’t realize that they have suffered traumatic brain injuries until some time after the injuries themselves occur. Short-term and long-term symptoms can include blurred vision, memory loss, and confusion.
The Symptoms Vary
However, moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries can produce effects both physical and psychological. Traumatic brain injury patients have reported symptoms ranging from personality changes to persistent headaches and even loss of control over bodily functions. These long-term issues can potentially last for the rest of patients’ lives. Understandably, these patients and their loved ones are often desperate for treatments that produce results.
Which begs the question: can stem cell therapies treat traumatic brain injuries?
The Current Applications of Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cells, in a sense, are generalized cells. They are undifferentiated, and can then differentiate, which means that they transform into specialized cells. The ability of stem cells to differentiate makes them extremely valuable, as they can theoretically be applied to many different parts of the body. Potentially, there are countless applications for stem cell therapies; science simply must “catch up” to them. Currently, the most widely-used form of stem cell therapy is the bone marrow transplant. This procedure saves lives throughout the world, and its successes, as well as advancements in stem cell technology, have caused many parents to save stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. Cord blood can be used to treat a variety of genetic disorders, as well as blood disorders.
The regeneration produced by stem cell therapies have led to the study of its application to neurodegenerative disorders. Crucially, traumatic brain injuries often have effects similar to those of neurodegenerative disorders, including cell death. Naturally, this has led researchers to speculate about whether or not stem cell therapies can be applied to traumatic brain injuries.
Unlike neurodegenerative diseases, in which progress over time, traumatic brain injuries create damage suddenly. The goal with treatment would not be stopping progressive damage, but repairing, to whatever extent possible, the damage that has already been done. Stem cell therapy could be uniquely suitable for the treatment of traumatic brain injuries, precisely because stem cells have the potential to regenerate new cellular growth. The regenerative qualities of stem cells mean that they could in theory reverse the effects of traumatic brain injuries.
Applying Stem Cell Therapy to Traumatic Brain Injuries
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Much is still unknown regarding the extent to which stem cells can be used to treat traumatic brain injuries. However, the scientific community can look to current or recent studies and experiments for insight. Achal Singh Anchrol, MD and Santosh Kesari, MD at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute have completed recruitment for a clinical trial that would study the effects of stem cell therapy on traumatic brain injury patients.
Specifically, the clinical trial would study patients at least 12 months post-injury, with moderate to severe disabilities resulting from that injury. These patients would experience fixed motor deficits as a result of their brain injuries, and utilize an intracranial injection of SB623 cells as a potential treatment. What are SB623 cells? These cells are bone-marrow derived, and have been transfected with the intercellular domain of the human Notch-1 gene.
Although the full impact of this clinical trial is yet to be determined, previous studies involving the SB623 cells and stroke patients indicate its promise. Interestingly, stem cell therapy has shown promise in treating stroke patients, who often suffer symptoms similar to those of traumatic brain injury patients. Stem cell therapy has been used in experimental treatments for stroke patients days or even years after their initial incidents. Following SB623 cell therapy, stroke patients have exhibited reported improvements in their motor skills, with some lifting their arms after extended periods of being unable to do so.
Not only are stem cells full of potential, but stem cell therapy itself is potentially less dangerous for the patients. As stem cell therapy is minimally invasive compared to in-depth surgeries, there would theoretically be less physical trauma involved. This could lead to faster recovery times, as well as faster results. The point of using stem cells in most cases is to create alternatives to reconstructive surgeries; in the case of treating traumatic brain injuries, stem cells could be seen as a way to reconstruct the brain itself.
The Future of Stem Cell Therapy
As interest in banking stem cells grows, it is inevitable that people will also become more invested in the potential medical merits of stem cells, beyond treating diseases like leukemia. The obstacles facing the progression of stem cell research are being confronted head-on. For example, a longstanding issue with stem cells has been that they differentiate too early and too quickly. Even now, scientists at the University of British Columbia are testing a drug that could slow the differentiation process, making it easier to transplant stem cells effectively.
Investing in stem cell therapy on every level is crucial for the future of traumatic brain injury treatment. The further stem cell therapy research progresses, the closer doctors will come to being able to apply stem cell therapy to traumatic brain injury patients on a regular basis. Granting these patients the ability to fully recover is about more than medical research—it’s about giving people their lives back.
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