JANUARY 14, 2013
Scientists in recent years have found a way to infuse stem cells into the brains of animals to repair damage to the central nervous system, offering some of the most encouraging news yet for multiple sclerosis patients.
Now, a key $12.1 million study soon will be under way in Buffalo and two other upstate medical centers that will for the first time begin to test the procedure in people.
The hope is that the stem cells will generate new myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds nerves like the insulation on a wire. Myelin is damaged in MS, leading to weak or lost signals between nerves. Eventually, the painful disease spreads in a slow, unpredictable path toward paralysis.
“This is a promising strategy. It has been extraordinarily effective in mice, and there is great hope the technique will be successful in people,” said Dr. Steven Goldman, co-principal investigator and co-director of the University of Rochester Center for Translational Neuromedicine.
The study by researchers in Rochester, the University at Buffalo and Upstate Medical University in Syracuse has far-ranging implications. It potentially could be applied to millions of patients with a host of other conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Although stem cells show great promise, the approach is a ways from reality.
What works in mice does not always work in humans. In addition, scientists don’t know what causes MS, so they can’t exactly replicate MS in animals, complicating tests of the potential new treatment.
“Expectations have to be kept under control. You’re not going to implant stem cells in people and suddenly see them running around,” said Dr. Bianca Guttman-Weinstock, co-principal investigator at UB.
Stem cells are often referred to as master cells because they develop into the many different types of cells in the body that form organs and tissue. Stem cells also have the potential to repair or replace damaged cells.
Other scientists are looking at whether it may be possible to use certain stem cells to prevent the body’s immune system from attacking nerves.
“There is a lot happening in stem cell research, and it’s exciting because five years ago, these were just ideas. Now, they are reality,” said Dr. Timothy Coetzee, chief research officer at the National MS Society.
Until recently, scientists didn’t know exactly which master stem cells ultimately developed into cells that make myelin in a complicated process. They now know that cells called oligodendrocytes produce myelin. They also learned how to turn stem cells into a type of cell called glial progenitor cells. Glial progenitor cells are the cells that make oligodendrocytes.
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