People sustain approximately 11,000 spinal cord injuries each year. Approximately 38 percent of these injuries are from motor vehicle accidents, with falls, gunshot wounds and similar forms of violence, sports activities, and medical or surgical complications being the other common causes. Regardless of the cause, any type of injury to the spinal cord can damage nerve and tissue cells and result in a loss of sensation or paralysis. One possible option for treatment for spinal cord injuries that’s been gaining traction among Beverly Hills spine surgeons is the use of stem cells.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells. They are useful because they can become specialized cells in the area where they are injected. These cells have the ability to become other types of cells and encourage the production of new, healthy cells. There are two common types of stem cells:
- Embryonic stem cells – Usually created in IVF (in vitro fertilization) clinics, embryonic stem cells are collected at a time when they lack the stimulation to differentiate, so they can become any type of cell in the human body.
- Adult stem cells – Found within various tissues in the body, adult (somatic) stem cells remain in a non-dividing state until they are activated by disease or an injury. While it was previously thought that adult stem cells were limited in their ability to differentiate, there’s evidence to suggest this isn’t the case.
How Do Stem Cells Help with Spinal Injuries?
Normally, treatment for a spinal cord injury involves extensive physical therapy and rehab. However, recovery is usually limited because an injured spine can’t heal due to the formation of scar tissue triggered by an inflammatory response that keeps healthy cells from reaching the damaged area.
Adult stem cells that come from either bone marrow or a donated umbilical cord from a healthy pregnancy are usually used for spinal injury treatments. With umbilical cord tissue, there is a more rigorous screening process to look for viruses and bacteria. Regardless of how they are collected, stem cells may help with spinal cord injuries by:
- Stimulating new tissue growth
- Promoting the formation of new blood vessels (to deliver essential nutrients to the affected area)
- Naturally adjusting inflammation levels
How Is the Treatment Performed?
Along with a local anesthetic, stem cells used to treat spinal injuries are injected directly into the affected area, and they are placed into the spinal fluid to allow the undefined cells to reach the injured part of the spine. Patients usually receive multiple injections over the course of several weeks. Treatment is often coupled with:
- Follow-up evaluations
- Blood testing
- Customized physical therapy sessions to further promote healing
Stem cells won’t completely repair an injured spinal cord. However, there are several promising studies that suggest some patients do see noticeable improvements, such as the ability to feel light touch below the injured area. At one facility in India, eight out of ten patients with no motor or sensory function below the waist were able to walk for about an hour with the assistance of a walker eight months after receiving transplanted stem cells. Stem cell therapy is still in its infancy, but it does offer some hope for patients with spinal injuries who are looking for an alternative to minimally invasive spinal surgery. Beverly Hills residents should contact The Spine Institute at 310-828-7757 for more information.
According to an article on Becker’s Spine Review, The Spine Institute’s Dr. Hyun Bae has spent a significant amount of time researching stem cell repair for degenerative disc disease as well as how growth factors can treat spinal cord injuries. Dr. Bae was among the first spinal surgeons to utilize growth factor tissue engineering for intervertebral discs, and in 2010 he also chaired a course for the North American Spine Society that dealt with navigating research in spinal biologics.