Parents of children with cerebral palsy are devoted to doing what they can to improve their child’s function and independence. Often very small improvements in function can result in significant improvements in the quality of a child’s life.
Since we know that some children with cerebral palsy have suffered a brain injury around the time of their birth, it makes sense to try to heal that injury. When an injury occurs, the brain cells are unable to promote proper growth and development of the brain. Brain cells die or fail to mature, and the white matter tracts that connect different areas of the brain become damaged. In people with CP, the corticospinal tract (CST), which connects regions of the brain that control motor function to the spinal cord, is often damaged. This tract helps to control movement, and without functional CST connections, motor deficits ensue. The questions is, can stem cell therapy promote new cell growth to replace these damaged brain cells?
What is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cell therapy is a regenerative therapy in which stem cells are introduced to replace dead cells and support the remaining cells. Two characteristics make stem cells unique from other cells in the body. First, they have the ability to divide and make copies of themselves over extended periods of time. Second, they can differentiate into more specialized cell types, which means they can transform into specialized cell types of the body such as heart, lung, or brain cells.
Research has shown that stem cells can be induced to become more specialized cell types, and when transplanted into the body, can replace dead cells and support the existing cells. Stem cell transplantation has the potential to replace the damaged and non-functional cells in the brains of CP patients and support the remaining cells.
How Effective is Stem Cell Therapy?
There are a small number of clinical trials around the world assessing how stem cells can be used to treat CP. So far, there is only one published study of children with CP which found that those who received stem cells in combination with conventional rehabilitation and medication showed greater improvements on cognitive and motor assessments compared to those children who received conventional rehabilitation therapy and medication without receiving stem cells.
Despite the progress seen with pre-clinical (ie. animal studies) and clinical trials in recent years, there are some hurdles that need to be overcome in order for stem cells to become a widely accessible treatment for CP. The first is the problem of the supply of stem cells. Because stem cells are cultured in the laboratory, a lab may only produce enough stem cells to treat one or two patients at a time. As stem cell therapies come closer to the clinic, there is increasing need to develop strategies to manufacture cells on a large scale.
The other problem is that regulatory agencies, such as Health Canada, are having difficulty developing standardized guidelines for the production and use of stem cells. Stem cells are not like conventional drugs; they are living entities and their effects on the human body are not as well-defined as conventional drugs.
Are There any Risks in Trying Stem Cell Therapy?
It must be cautioned that stem cell therapy is still an experimental technique and is not yet ready to be incorporated into the treatment of children with cerebral palsy in Canada. There is a temptation to travel to other countries where it is being offered, with promising testimonials. Physicians caution against this practice, referred to as “stem cell tourism” noting that there have also been many instances of increasing disability. For example, one of the known problems with stem cell therapy is the risk of the tumour formation. Further, many of the unregulated clinics in North America and overseas use the same types of stem cells to treat a host of different disorders, despite a lack of evidence to support their use.
In conclusion, while stem cell transplantation holds promise and offers hope for improvements in the lives of children living with cerebral palsy, we are only in the early stages of truly understanding its potential. A realistic expectation is that stem cell therapy may offer small improvements in function that may in turn result in meaningful improvements in the quality of life for children living with cerebral palsy.
If you have a child living with cerebral palsy and you have unanswered questions about what caused their brain injury, and whether or not your child is entitled to compensation for therapy and future care costs, please contact us at 1-604-685-2361. We would be pleased to discuss your concerns with you and outline the options available for your child.