The science of stem cell therapy is an extremely fast-moving area of research and treatment across the world. It's claimed that stem cells can address a wide range of illness and disability. However, although stem cells offer promise in a number of areas, we strongly advise waiting until benefits (short- and long-term) are proved via randomised clinical trials and long-term patient care.

What are stem cells?

A stem cell is a cell that has the ability to generate new tissue or repair damaged tissue. Stem cells are found in all adult tissue but we talk about three distinct types of stem cells – embryonic, adult or tissue-specific cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.

With all procedures using stem cells, a high level of skill is required on the part of the clinician.

What are the different types of stem cells and what are the pros and cons?

Embryonic cells

The benefits

  • These cells are capable of becoming any tissue type in the body.
  • Foetal stem cells, sometimes classed as tissue specific cells, can be harvested at birth and stored in a cell bank or are taken from aborted foetuses.

The drawbacks

  • Embryonic stem cells are usually from IVF clinics where parents have chosen to donate the embryo rather than use it for a pregnancy. Hence some people may have ethical issues in using foetal or embryonic cells.
  • There have been some reports of embryonic cells becoming malignant when transplanted.
  • Research to date is disappointing.

Tissue cells 

The benefits

  • Available in adults (especially young adults) where the quality is higher.
  • They are readily available.

The drawbacks

  • These cells do not have the same ability to differentiate into other cells.
  • There may be unforeseen genetic issues.
  • There may be a risk of transmitting infection.
  • The technique to multiply and reproduce these cells is not standardised.

Adult mesenchymal cells 

The benefits

  • Primarily taken from bone marrow.
  • The function of these cells in the body is to produce bone, cartilage, tendons and fat cells but researchers are examining whether they may have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Readily available.
  • Cells are harvested from the patient’s own body.
  • No problems with infection.

The drawbacks

  • There are differences of opinion in the scientific community as to their use beyond producing bone, cartilage and tendons.
  • No standardised technique.
  • There have been very few randomised clinical trials.

Induced pluripotent cells (IPS) 

The benefits

  • Taken from adults.
  • Selected hormones and genetic factors are added to the cells.
  • IPS cells behave like embryonic cells.
  • Most potential for future treatment.
  • IPS cells can be directed to become any cell in the body therefore behave like embryonic cells.

The drawbacks

  • At present safety and stability is still questionable as some of these cells may become cancerous.  

How do stem cells work?

Initially stem cells are responsible for generating new tissue. Once growth is complete they are responsible for the repair and regeneration of damaged and ageing tissue. The proliferation of stem cell research and treatments is around the question of whether the regeneration aspect of these cells can be harvested to grow new cells in the body and replace damaged or diseased cells.

Could stem cell therapy help with cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy affects approximately one in every 400 live births. It's the most common childhood disability and consequently a high proportion of disabled adults have a degree of cerebral palsy affecting their muscles, mobility and possibly sensory function such as speech. It occurs as a result of damage to the immature brain occurring before or during birth or in early childhood. It is a condition that is unique to the individual and no two people are affected in the same way.

The brain consists of many different cell types which work and support the neurons to carry signals around the brain and body. Consideration is being given to transplanting specialised neural precursor cells in the body in the hope that these can repair and replace damaged brain cells. However, any cells introduced to the brain would have to link to the appropriate and specific brain cells to be effective. Achieving this could be very complex and challenging.

Whilst there is a great deal of research, the current answer to whether stem cells can treat cerebral palsy is no.

What is the future of stem cell therapy?

The field of stem cell research is growing rapidly with cells being trialled to treat some heart conditions and visual impairment. Studies are also being undertaken with stroke patients, spinal injuries and people with Parkinson’s disease.

In future there may be some evidence to demonstrate that stem cells can help protect or repair specific brain cells but this is likely to be combined with other treatments and therapies common in the treatment of cerebral palsy such as physiotherapy.

Whilst research and preliminary trials are underway, there are currently no published randomised clinical trials which support stem cell therapy as having positive results on patients with cerebral palsy. Therefore there is no proof of its effectiveness and safety with cerebral palsy.

We would advise extreme caution before paying for and embarking on stem cell therapy in relation to cerebral palsy. Some treatments are being offered in countries like China and India but none have been through randomised clinical trials to establish safety. Also some of these treatments may be carried out in unregulated centres with little accountability if something goes wrong and the cells injected may not meet leading health standards. If you are exploring the issue of stem cells in relation to cerebral palsy, please consider asking questions about therapies and get second opinions from your own medical practitioner or consultant.

Once again, If you have been offered stem cell therapy in relation to cerebral palsy either for yourself or your child, please remember that there are no current stem cell therapies that are effective with cerebral palsy and which have been proven to be safe. 

Stem cell therapy: further information

Read MacKeith Press's paper on stem cell therapy.

EuroStemCell provides independent information and resources on stem cells, the different types and their impact. It also has a factsheet related to stem cells and cerebral palsy.

National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia provides a wide range of information and advice around stem cell therapy and research including advice on questions to ask before embarking on any treatment.

NHS Choices has a comprehensive book about stem cells.

Version 1.2. November 2014. Peer Reviewed by: Dr. Jan Barfoot, Public Engagement Manager, Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh.
Scope does not endorse or recommend any treatments or therapies. Always consult a doctor or medical practitioner before starting or paying for any therapy.