Study: Nerve cell therapy restores motor function after spinal cord injury

Regenerative therapy using millions of nerve cells, derived from human embryonic stem cells, restored two or more motor levels on at least one side, in four out of six patients with paralyzing spinal cord injuries, according to researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

In a press release, the medical center reported the 67% recovery rate is “more than double” the rates previously reported in matched historical controls and in published data in a similar population — patients who had lost all motor function below the location of their spinal injury.

“Having worked on this research for more than 20 years, and given that we hadn’t seen any significant improvement before, these results are beyond anything I would have hoped for in the study,” researcher Richard G. Fessler, MD, PhD, a professor at the Rush University Medical Center department of neurological surgery, said in the release. “Normally with a spinal cord injury, a person will improve for a month or two, but that’s it. We are 12 months out and we are continuing to see improvements in patients who receive the treatment. That’s vastly better than anything we’ve ever seen before.”

According to the release, each of the six participants in the 12-month study received a surgical injection of 10 million nerve cells known as oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, otherwise known as AST-OPC1. The cells were derived from human embryonic stem cells, which support proper nerve cell function and can potentially help restore the conductivity of signals from the brain to the upper extremities in a recently damaged spinal cord, the release stated.

In the study, AST-OPC1 cells were injected in three escalating doses, 21 to 42 days after the patient’s injury. Patients later completed neurological exams and imaging procedures to determine the safety and activity of the treatment.

Rush is one of nine medical centers in the country currently studying the safety and efficacy of AST-OPC1 treatment. Asterias Biotherapeutics, a biotechnology company based in California, manufactures the cell therapy and released the Rush study results on Oct. 2, according to the release.


Disclosure: The researchers report funding from Asterias Biotherapeutics and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

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