Do You Have The Spine For It?
December 24, 2013

Do You Have The Spine For It?

I have always been scared by the thought of suffering a major spine injury. I personally know several people who have suffered from varying degrees of spinal injury, most of which has been caused by traffic accidents, and have seen the impact that it can have on their lives. I have seen these effects range all the way from total paralysis to pain and difficulty moving. Even all the way back in Drivers Education, I can recall those horrific films they made us watch in order to try and scare all the soon-to-be drivers into being careful on the roads. No additional convincing needed here. Spinal injuries plague an astonishing number of people, and yet there is little at present that can be done for them save allowing them time to heal and physical therapy. Or is there?

The topic of using stem cells has been “hot button” for almost as long as I can remember, and yet it is hard to deny their effectiveness in treating injuries such as spinal cord damage. Stem cell therapy uses stem cells to fill in areas of the spine that have been damaged with the goal of allowing the patient to regain any lost movement or sensation. Over the years there have been countless studies into the matter, mostly done on lab rats, but these have always suffered from three major limitations, those being financial, practical, and ethical considerations. Each of these have been a major deterrent to most major studies and have left us in this current state of limbo when it comes to the use of stem cell implantation to treat spinal injuries. Recently, Ana Antonic, David Howells, and their colleagues from Florey Institute and the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Malcolm MacLeod and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh, UK have gotten around these issues in their own study by conducting what they are calling a “meta-analysis,” a statistical reappraisal of many previous laboratory experiments, meaning that they are only looking at data that has already been created rather than attempt to create their own. This meant pouring over 156 published studies that examined the use of stem cell implantation in about 6000 cases (again, all lab animals). Overall, what they found was that stem cell treatments result in an average improvement of about 25 percent for both sensory and motor performance. With sensory outcomes, it was also noted that the degree of improvement increased with the amount of stem cells introduced. The authors of the study, published in PLOS Biology, concluded that “Extensive recent preclinical literature suggests that stem cell-based therapies may offer promise; however the impact of compromised internal validity and publication bias means that efficacy is likely to be somewhat lower than reported here.”

So, based on this, there are definitely some reasons to further advance the study of stem cells for use in treating spinal based injuries. Yes, I understand that many people have ethical quandaries regarding this, many of which I must admit make little sense to me. Over all, I am in favor of improving the lives of those who have had to live with these terrible injuries, in some cases, for most of their lives. If this study proves that stem cell research can help them, is that not reason enough to look into it again?

Image Credit: decade3d / Shutterstock

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