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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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