Stem cells for ALS: Medicine's Next Big Thing?

January 12, 2011 9:52:17 AM PST
Could stem cells help patients trapped inside their own bodies?

A researcher has developed a procedure that could mean new hope for people with ALS.

Thirty-thousand Americans have ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a fatal neurodegenerative disease that takes away the ability to walk, talk and eventually even breathe. That quick decline happens within two to five years. There is no known cure.

Now, a revolutionary trial is underway to test a new kind of treatment for ALS using human stem cells.

Fifty-five-year old Tom Elliott is not a quitter. He has ALS. He fights to keep up with the daily routines of his life even as the disease makes everything harder.

"Brushing the teeth has become a real chore. Turning and rolling in bed to get comfortable has become an impossibility. This disease is about having to give up and sacrifice a lot," said Elliott.

As ALS progresses, it destroys the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement, until...

"They cease to be able to move, they become essentially locked in their bodies," said Nicholas Boulis, MD, Neurosurgeon, Emory University.

Dr. Nicholas Boulis and his team at Emory University helped develop an experimental approach to treating ALS implanting stem cells called human neuro-progenitors directly into the spinal cord.

"We want to put those cells right next to those dying motor neurons in the hopes that those cells will provide protection and restoration of function, keep those cells alive, make 'em stronger," said Dr. Boulis.

It's the first ever US clinical trial of its kind.

"I'm optimistic that we can do this safely. I'm optimistic that we'll have opened the door to a world of opportunities," said Dr. Boulis.

Elliott is one of the first to have stem cells injected into his spinal cord, a procedure with high risk and no promises. Doctors say the stem cells won't generate new neurons but may help protect the still functioning motor neurons and slow the progression of the disease.

"Maybe in the near or far future we'll be able to manage the disease better, and then perhaps one day cure it," Elliott said.

Meanwhile, Elliott will keep fighting as long as he can.

If the stem cell transplant technique works for ALS, researchers say it could open the door for new therapies for spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and other disabling illnesses. Human stem cells for this ALS study were developed by a Maryland-based biotech company.


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