Stem cell therapy for stroke shows need for rigorous trials in US

June 22, 2015 by David Tenenbaum, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The news that legendary Green Bay Packer quarterback Bart Starr has undergone stem cell therapy to recover from a stroke has raised the profile for a promising but unproven regenerative treatment intended to replace dead neurons with live ones.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Su-Chun Zhang was the first scientist to isolate from and then from other types of all-purpose stem . He says medical researchers and the federal government have a responsibility to forge ahead with to prove whether and how these flexible cells can replace damaged or dead caused by spinal cord injury, stroke and Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).

"We have no effective treatment for stroke," says Zhang, a medical doctor and Ph.D. researcher at the UW's Waisman Center. "After a couple of hours, the cells are dead if they don't have a blood supply. And the brain has a very limited capacity to regenerate, particularly in older patients."

Embryonic stem cells—the cells that give rise to all body tissues—were first cultured by James Thomson at UW-Madison in 1998. Just three years later—in 2001—Zhang discovered how to grow neural cells from embryonic stem cells.

Since then, he has been instrumental in differentiating these neural cells into neurons, which carry nerve signals, and glial cells, which keep neurons healthy. UW-Madison currently has more than 90 faculty working on the basic science and regenerative potential of stem cells. UW scientists publish more than 500 research articles each year on stem cells.

Zhang expressed hope that Starr will recover, but says there are plenty of question marks, such as what type of cells were used, and how they were inserted into the body.

In a statement Wednesday, Starr's family announced he was participating in a stem-cell trial but gave no details of how or where he was being treated. Published reports have said that the family received information about stem-cell treatment in Tijuana, Mexico, undergone by hockey Hall-of-Famer Gordie Howe.

Given the lack of available therapies for stroke in the U.S., treatments and trials outside the country can understandably appeal to patients and families searching for help.

But Zhang says there are questions about whether foreign trials meaningfully advance the science of the field. Curious about the widespread clinical trials for said to be underway, he says he "went through lists of thousands of clinical trials, mostly in foreign countries, looking for the outcomes, and I hardly saw any posted results." Patients usually disappear after returning home, he says, "and many of these so-called trials are not really trials, where you follow the patient and set up standards to measure the outcome. What do they teach you?"

The Food and Drug Administration has been more conservative than some foreign regulators, Zhang says, but science has advanced to the point where human trials are justified, especially for untreatable conditions. "It is time. Many of the procedures are reasonably safe, and has advanced to the point where we can produce highly differentiated cells that are effective in animals. Patients with ALS, spinal cord injury and stroke are desperate."

Stem cells come in many varieties, Zhang says. "You need a different kind of stem cell for stroke or spinal cord injury."

As his interests have shifted from pioneering the basic science of to their application to relieve suffering, Zhang has proposed building a master neural cell bank and initiating clinical trials. "We are at the point where I feel much more confident about the cells and the procedures. If we are careful and follow the rules set by the FDA, we can do a good job. It may take a few more years, but we are really getting close."

"We wish Bart Starr all the best," says Jordana Lenon, spokeswoman for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center. The center refers patients considering stem cell treatment to a list of essential questions at the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

"The federal government maintains clinicaltrials.gov as a resource for doctors and patients considering a trial," Lenon says. "These trials are the only reliable way to get peer-reviewed, publishable clinical research results and attain FDA approval for new treatments so they can truly benefit patients. In the quest for a cure, we need to rely on science. There is no other way."

Explore further: Recovery of sensory function by stem cell transplants

Related Stories

Recovery of sensory function by stem cell transplants

June 8, 2015
New research from Uppsala University shows promising progress in the use of stem cells for treatment of spinal cord injury. The results, which are published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, show that human stem ...

Specific roles of adult neural stem cells may be determined before birth

June 18, 2015
Adult neural stem cells, which are commonly thought of as having the ability to develop into many type of brain cells, are in reality pre-programmed before birth to make very specific types of neurons, at least in mice, according ...

Limited self-renewal of stem cells in the brain

March 11, 2015
Stem cells in the brain can produce neurons and are consequently seen as a hope for treatment. A team of researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum München and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) has now discovered ...

First embryonic stem cell therapy safety trial in Asian patients

April 30, 2015
A clinical trial in the Republic of Korea for patients with degenerative eye diseases is the first to test the safety of an embryonic stem cell therapy for people of Asian descent. The study, which followed four individuals ...

Depletion of naive T cells from stem cell grafts limits chronic graft-versus host disease

June 8, 2015
Stem cell transplantation is used to treat hematologic malignancies, such as leukemia. Patients that receive donor cells are at risk of developing graft-versus host disease (GVHD). This potentially fatal complication results ...

Recommended for you

Long-term estrogen therapy changes microbial activity in the gut, study finds

June 20, 2018
Long-term therapy with estrogen and bazedoxifene alters the microbial composition and activity in the gut, affecting how estrogen is metabolized, a new study in mice found.

Researchers use AI to improve mammogram interpretation

June 20, 2018
In an effort to reduce errors in the analyses of diagnostic images by health professionals, a team of researchers from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory has improved understanding of the cognitive processes ...

Are you sticking to your diet? Scientists may be able to tell from a blood sample

June 19, 2018
An analysis of small molecules called "metabolites" in a blood sample may be used to determine whether a person is following a prescribed diet, scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have shown.

Everything big data claims to know about you could be wrong

June 19, 2018
When it comes to understanding what makes people tick—and get sick—medical science has long assumed that the bigger the sample of human subjects, the better. But new research led by UC Berkeley suggests this big-data ...

Diagnosing and treating disorders of early sex development

June 19, 2018
Diagnosing, advising on and treating disorders of early sex development represent a huge medical challenge, both for those affected and for treating physicians. In contrast to the earlier view, DSD (Difference of Sex Development) ...

BPA can induce multigenerational effects on ability to communicate

June 18, 2018
Past studies have shown that biparental care of offspring can be affected negatively when females and males are exposed to bisphenol A (BPA); however, previous studies have not characterized how long-term effects of BPA exposure ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.