Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the leading cause of disability and death in children and adolescents in the US. For children ages 0-14 years, TBI results in an estimated 2,685 deaths, 37,000 hospitalizations, and 435,000 emergency department visits every year.
Studies done using animals have had exciting results. They’ve shown that cord blood stem cells injected into the bloodstream of animals with different types of brain injury migrate to the damaged area of the brain. The stem cell transplants have been found to significantly improve movement and brain function.
Results in animal trials have been so promising that the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) recently undertook a Phase I clinical trial treating 10 children, ages 5-14, who had severe brain injury. Soon after their injury, the children were given transplants of their own stem cells, collected from their bone marrow. Six months later, all of the children showed significant improvement, and 7 of the 10 had mild or no disability.
Six months later, all of the children showed significant improvement, and 7 of the 10 had mild or no disability.
While the UTHealth study used bone marrow stem cells, scientists are enthused about the potential of cord blood stem cells in treating traumatic brain injury. Cord blood stem cells are younger and more plastic than bone marrow stem cells, meaning they have the ability to differentiate into many different types of cells. In vitro studies have shown that they can change into nerve cells like those found in the brain. They also secrete therapeutic factors that may help repair brain damage.
While research on stem cell treatment for brain injury is still in its infancy, it seems very likely that stem cells will be an important resource as we learn more about restoring health to damaged brains.