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Paralysis Treatment Using Stem Cells Around the Corner?  Hope for Treating Spinal Cord Injuries

June 21st 2006

Paralysis Treatment Using Stem Cells Around the Corner?  John Hopkins Researchers Implant Embryonic Cells in Rats Treating Spinal Cord Injuries

Douglas Kerr

Amazing breakthrough in stem cell research may lead to a treatment for paralysis.  This is extremely hopeful news for those suffering from spinal cord injuries.  Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have injected neurons near the spinal cords of rats that had been paralyzed by a virus, and found that the rats were able to “partially” move their legs.

The procedure is not as simple as just injecting stem cells into a paralyzed rat.  The stem cells would just wonder aimlessly thought the body without the right mixture of growth factors and other chemicals (pharmacologic agents). This recipe of ingredients will entice the stem cells to form the appropriate connections.

The researchers said, "This is the first report, to our knowledge, of the anatomical and functional replacement of a motor neuron circuit within the adult, mammalian host.”   They added “The results could help victims of paralysis regain motor function.”


Previous research has shown that the injection of stem cells can help bridge a damaged spinal cord that was blocking nerve cells from delivering their movement messages to the muscles.  Now it appears the therapy that combines differentiated stem cells with myelin inhibitors and a motor axon tropic factor helped paralyzed rats restore functional motor units and gain some physical recovery.

Scientists' ability to differentiate stem cells toward specific mature cell lineages is assisting in the study of diseases and the development of new treatments. Embryonic stem cells can be induced to create normal pathways for the generation of spinal motor neurons, and this activity can be encouraged by certain pharmacologic agents.


Based on this hypothesis, researchers led by Douglas Kerr, M.D., Ph.D. of explored different strategies to restore motor function in paralyzed rats. They used agents to inhibit myelin-mediated axon repulsion and others to provide attractive cues within peripheral nerves. They hoped to stimulate the formation of functional muscular units.

The researchers began by inducing embryonic stem cells from rats to “differentiate into motor neurons.”  They divided the rats into 8 groups.  Some of the rats received neurons that had been treated to potentially increase their survival and their ability to extend axons. Some groups received injections of Rolipram and dibutyrl cAMP to potentially neutralize the inhibitory effects of myelin on axon outgrowth. And some groups received a motor axon tropic factor, GDNF, to potentially attract transplanted axons toward skeletal muscle targets. They then examined innervation of host skeletal muscle, electrophysiologic evidence of functioning motor units and signs of recovery from hind limb paralysis.

GDNF acts as a focal attractive cue for embryonic stem cell-derived motor axons.  The rats with bcAMP and Rolipram injections established neuromuscular junctions between transplant and host, resulting in noticeable recovery.


The researchers point out that "Animals transplanted with inhibitors of myelin and GDNF within the peripheral nervous system formed approximately 125 new connections with host skeletal muscle, 50 of which were electrically active in the distal hind limb.  We also provide several lines of evidence that strongly suggest that this functional innervation was required for the behavioral recovery observed."

The goal is to transfer what they have learned with rats to higher mammals and then to humans.  The research is published in the July issue of Annals of Neurology, a journal published by John Wiley & Sons. The article is also available online via Wiley Interscience (

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