Stem cell therapy is a still a fairly new field of medicine, and the effect of stem cells taken specifically from the umbilical cord is being tested in ongoing clinical trials around the world. Preliminary findings suggest that these cells may be extremely beneficial in treating conditions that involve damage to the brain, such as cerebral palsy.
Ordinary stem cells are already used to treat a variety of brain-related conditions, but cord blood stem cells may be more useful because, regardless of where in the body they are injected, they migrate towards the damaged areas, in this case the brain. Cord blood stem cells are also particularly beneficial because they are embryonic (newborn) in nature and therefore can develop into multiple types of cell according to the needs of the individual patient. Once they have moved into the damaged area, the cells can adapt to their environment, thus aiding the healing process.
Another advantage over ordinary stem cells is the adaptable nature of cord blood stem cells, meaning that they are less likely to be rejected by the recipient. They also do not require an exact cell match and can therefore be donated to a variety of people, eliminating the need to wait for a specific donor (which is the case when ordinary stem cells are gathered from bone marrow).
The use of cord blood stem cells bypasses a number of the issues that make stem cell research a controversial area of medicine. While bone marrow donors have to suffer a painful procedure, cord blood stem cells are harvested from leftover blood in the placenta after birth, causing no further pain or risk to the mother or baby. Rather than being destroyed as medical waste, blood is taken from the afterbirth and the cells are frozen for donation at a later date.
Clinical trials suggest that transplanted cord blood stem cells can work with the brain cells already present in the recipient to repair damaged tissue, slow down cell death, increase the healthy blood cell count and increase neurone growth. In patients with cerebral palsy, this has the potential to improve cognitive function and therefore substantially increase their quality of life.
Helen Hammond, senior associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team specialising in birth injuries and cerebral palsy claims, comments: “Any treatment that could improve outcomes for individuals who have been diagnosed with developed cerebral palsy due to mismanagement of either their or their mother’s care is a very positive step forward. If the use of cord blood stem cell therapy is found to reverse some of the damage caused to the brain, then this offers hope for effective treatment, rather than management, of their condition. We await further research in this area with keen interest.”