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World-first stem cell trial for spinal cord injury

Keio University hailed the implant of cells as a ‘huge step forward’ in the quest to cure paralysis

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The world’s first successful transplant of stem cells in a patient with a spinal cord injury (SCI) has been hailed as a “huge step forward” in efforts to cure paralysis. 

Surgeons at Tokyo’s Keio University are studying whether induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells can be used to treat SCI. 

And it has been announced than in the first step in the trial, more than two million iPS-derived cells have been implanted into a patient’s spinal cord in an operation which took place last month.

Keio University Professor Masaya Nakamura, who leads the research, said this marked a “huge step forward” but there remains “lots of work to be done” before the treatment can be put to use. 

iPS cells are created by stimulating mature, already specialised, cells back into a juvenile state.

They can then be prompted to mature into different kinds of cells, with the Keio University study using iPS-derived cells of the neural stem.

The breakthrough follows significant progress in moving closer to finding a cure for paralysis, with tech company ONWARD underway with its international Up-LIFT trial and a groundbreaking project to develop a biomaterial bridge to regrow nerve fibres being backed by a $24m investment.

The initial stage of the Keio University study aims to confirm the safety of the transplant method, the researchers said.

The patient will be monitored by an independent committee for up to three months to decide whether the study can safely continue and others can receive transplants.

The team also hopes to see whether the stem cell implants will improve neurological function and quality of life.

The number of cells implanted into the patient was determined after safety experiments in animals, said the researchers. While they will  be monitoring for therapeutic effects, the study’s main goal is to study the safety of injecting the cells, they added. 

The study has been planned since 2019, when the Keio University School of Medicine and Keio University Hospital were given clearance to start a clinical study into regenerative medicine for SCI. 

However, recruitment to the trial was suspended after research begun in December 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Patient recruitment for a subsequent trial is expected to resume in April. 

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