New treatment offers better hopes for victims of spinal injuries

The Institute of Experimental Medicine in Prague has made a potentially very important breakthrough in treating spinal cord injuries. Using stem cells on paralysed rats, the team has managed to heal acute cases of paralysis, returning the animals’ feeling and movement. Now the group has found that seeding the stem cells in a hydrogel implanted in the wound can cure even chronic back injuries. I spoke with the Institute’s Eva Syková, who explained how the new method is a major development in the use of stem cells to treat such injuries.

“Our previous research showed that if we apply adult stem cells to a spinal injury it heals better and the result is much better for the animals. However, this is only in acute situations, and our newest findings show that when the spinal injury is chronic – which is usually the case in clinical settings, when the patients have already been operated on and we see several weeks later that they really have a complete spinal cord injury – we cannot use only the stem cells, we have to use many other things. So we invented this hydrogel, which is a very soft foam – biomaterial – which is seeded with the stem cells in the laboratory and then implanted in the animals, and in this way we have achieved much better healing in the experiment animals.”

Eva Syková
So this could be used with any kind of spinal injury that entails paralysis, or could it be used with any kind of spinal cord injury at all?

“Yes, generally in any kind of spinal cord injury, yes.”

Could this treatment be used not only weeks but even years after such an injury?

“Certainly weeks – we of course also need to see if these experiments in animals will have the same success in humans, you never know – but of course after several weeks, at which point the patient is already stable, whether it will be possible after several years is another question. It might be possible. We need to include another thing, which are some enzymes we are working on now, but we will probably still need this technique for that.”

Did the rats in the experiments show a full recovery?

“They showed significant recovery. Another thing that we actually achieved was that we monitored these animals for half a year; usually these kinds of studies are finished after three months, and this is a short period of time for regeneration. So after half a year we saw significant improvement. Of course we have not monitored the animals for a year or two years because that is extremely expensive and difficult, but for us it is enough if there is significant improvement: much better movement, much better sensitivity. And this itself is quite an achievement.”

And what are the next steps to be taken so that your treatment can be tested on humans?

“We will now repeat the experiment again to confirm the results, but with materials that are of clinical grade, which is important. We need to get these materials approved for clinical use, which is a tedious process that can take a year. And it needs to be manufactured, by the way, in a purified facility, and everything needs to be described. So the first step now is to get the hydrogel approved, to repeat the experiment with exactly that type of hydrogel, and then we will design a clinical study, apply for it – hopefully it will be approved – and then we can include perhaps human patients in the study.”