When the world starts running, walking and rolling in the charity Wings for Life World Run on May 6, 2018, most people’s focus will be on the Catcher Car, but researchers in California will continue their Wings for Life-funded search for a cure for spinal cord injury.
Stephen Ceto and his doctoral supervisor, Professor Mark Tuszynski, a leading Canadian nerve-functions expert, believe stem cells could be part of the answer. They’re exploring whether stem cells can be connected to spinal cord tissue.
A few years ago, Tuszynski and his team injected neural stem cells into the spinal cord of a paraplegic rat. Although only a few cells of the graft survived, the survivors formed long nerve fibers called axons. But the researchers wanted to find a way to fill the entire gap in the spinal cord caused by an injury. They used a protein to form a net-like anchor for the stem cells. It worked. This time, almost all the stem cells survived and formed tens of thousands of new axons. It was a sensation.
Ceto’s current research explores stem cells further, but he’s interested in how the graft integrates from a functional point of view.
Nerves communicate using electrical and chemical signals: When a nerve cell receives a signal, it processes it, and passes it on. This allows humans to feel, think, and act. An axon (transmitting) docking to a dendrite (receiving) is known as a synapse. This structure allows a single nerve cell to connect with thousands of others.
Ceto wants to find out to what extent these synaptic connections form after transplantation.
In a petri dish, Ceto cultivates up to one million stem cells for an injury shorter than a millimeter. They divide and proliferate, then he injects them into a lesion in a paralyzed rat. Six-to-eight weeks later, he checks to see if the cells have connected to each other and with the healthy tissue, and he tracks the impulses, checking whether they pass to other nerve cells through the synaptic connections.
“We can see the first functional improvements in models, so some connections have formed,” Ceto explains. “But we still need a better understanding of what happens within the graft.”
Ceto, Tuszynski, and the team still have questions that need to be answered, but Ceto is convinced stem cells are the future for treating patients with spinal cord injuries. “They have the potential to create the optimal environment for a regenerative healing process and to restore the circuitry of nerve cells.” And they could work for almost all spinal cord injuries.
Ceto believes it’ll be five to ten years before they can treat patients: “We want to make absolutely sure the treatment works perfectly before we start clinical studies. But when the time comes, it’ll be greater than anything we have seen before.”
Money raised by the Wings for Life World Run for the Wings for Life foundation ensures Steven Ceto can continue his work on stem cells, work he hopes one day will change the face of spinal cord injury.