Cerebral palsy is one of the most common forms of disability in childhood. The most important cause for cerebral palsy is damage to the brain before or during birth, or in childhood. The disease affects the muscles that move in a coordinated fashion. Each of the movements we do with our muscles, say, moving our hands or legs, or nodding, or even smiling requires the coordinated activities of several muscles. In cerebral palsy, this coordination, as well as muscle tone, is affected in such children.
Nearly two per 1,000 babies are affected by this disease, while neonatal care does not contribute to lowering the incidence. The degree of impairment is varied ranging from small disabilities to extensive, including hearing or sight, speech and behaviour issues as well as communication issues. Isn’t this a huge challenge for the affected child and parents in our society?
The current approaches still lack effective therapies to ease the speech and muscle movement issues faced by the patients. Several drugs used for addressing symptoms have side effects: for example, on botulinum toxin A (Botox) injections for muscle spasticity has effects such as flu symptoms or bruising; drugs like Baclofen can have effects such as confusion or sleep disorders. Other treatments include surgery to address abnormalities of the bone, as well as non-drug therapies such as speech or occupational or physical approaches. Thus, while these approaches improve the quality of life and not target the main causes, a comprehensive treatment is yet to be discovered that cure this disease.
We have seen the reports of stem cells being used for several other diseases. So, what roles can the stem cells play in treating cerebral palsy? Well, when stem cells are introduced in a patient, they can generate a positive response in the damaged cells or can create new cells among the damaged ones. One of the targets of the use of stem cell transplants is to repair the affected cells before the disease progresses and the child is completely affected. The use of stem cells from a patient also avoids the risk associated with transplants.
Several stem cells are finding use in clinical settings such as those from bone marrow: that include hematopoietic and mesenchymal cells and have been shown as safe. Clinical trials have shown promising results in targeting this disease, reporting the use of patients’ own stem cells injected into affected spinal cords. The study results have been shown to be promising with improvement in movement and muscle tone and minimum side effects.
Another source of stem cells that have been used is from human umbilical cord tissue. This tissue is anyways discarded after birth so why not look at the stem cells from here? Remember the saying of recovering valuable materials from what is a waste? Well, Nature never creates anything that is to be wasted! Another advantage of stem cells from the umbilical cord is the avoiding of removal of cells from a patient’s bone marrow that requires surgery.
While the studies from labs world over have reported promising in the use of stem cell therapy of this weakening disease, the idea of using a patient’s own cells to address cerebral palsy doesn’t look far away. After all, childhood is meant to be enjoyed with a lot of dancing and sports and unrestricted movement! So why not give a shot of a patient’s own stem cells for such cerebral palsy affected children on a wheelchair to dance to the tune of their life?