About stem cells: “They’ve been called magic seeds. They have the potential to cure disease, regenerate organs, and even prolong life. And they could completely alter the way we practice medicine” – Fortune Magazine
There are many exciting areas in epilepsy research. One topic of great interest is the use of stem cells to treat seizures.
Cell transplants have become a recent focus in epilepsy research, due to a lack of effective treatments, according to Scott C. Baraban, PhD.
Baraban says that current drugs are focused on treating symptoms as opposed to the cause and fail to provide therapeutic benefit in many forms of epilepsy.
Although stem cell research related to epilepsy is in its early stages, preliminary data suggests promise for this treatment option.
Here’s how it works:
When an organism (a human, mouse, etc) is developing, the organism will start as a single fertilized cell. This cell will begin dividing.
Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics.
First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity.
They have the unique capacity to develop into any type of cell in the human body – heart, lungs, blood, bone, brain, liver, skin tissue, etc…
Stem cell therapy studies have also noted that stem cell implantation or transplants into the brain help to repress the number and severity of seizures that people diagnosed with epilepsy may experience, offering a new approach to therapies offered for epilepsy.
Such studies show promise for individuals who don’t respond well to traditional prescriptive anti-seizure medications.
Scientists and researchers are focusing on neurogenesis, or the production and proliferation of new and healthy neural cells in the brain and central nervous system to help alleviate symptoms of epilepsy in millions of individuals around the world.
Current studies have determined that the therapies and studies underway may have extreme beneficial effects on epileptic syndromes.
And studies will certainly continue into the future, regarding learning and understanding regeneration or neurogenesis of brain cells and tissues that may help alleviate, reduce, and even someday cure epilepsy syndromes found in most children and adults.
Researcher Dr Stewart Anderson, a research psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explained: “Interneurons act like an orchestra conductor, directing other excitatory brain cells to fire in synchrony.
However, when interneurons malfunction, the synchrony is disrupted and seizures or mental disorders can result.”
One of the most controversial types of stem cell research, but one of the most effective, is the use of embryonic stem cells for treatments or therapies for a variety of ills.
Contrary to popular opinion however, embryonic stem cells are not taken from live fetuses, babies, or in any other way hurt or harm a fetus, infant, baby, or the mother.
Rather, most embryonic stem cells are cultivated from donations made by women who have undergone successful fertilization treatments and therapies.
At some hospitals and clinics, umbilical cord stem cell injections have been used together with rehabilitation therapy to treat epilepsy.
Research by a German scientific group indicated that embryonic stem cells could possibility contribute to regeneration of brain tissue.
Currently 20% of epilepsy patients undergo surgery to remove uncontrolled excitatory cells that cause electrical discharges within the brain.
The transplant of embryonic stem cells would help reinstate normal neuron activity.
POSSIBLE WAYS THAT STEM CELLS COULD HELP PEOPLE WITH EPILEPSY
1. Replace neurons that are lost or dysfunctional to stop seizures.
It has been shown that patients with chronic epilepsy can have a reduced number of neurons in the area where their seizures originate (the seizure focus).
Also, the neurons in the region of the seizure focus may not function correctly — for example, they may be overly electrically active.
This abnormally high electrical activity is what can produce seizure activity.
Stem cells could be transplanted into the area of the seizure focus and replace the lost or abnormal neurons.
They could be programmed to become normally functioning neurons.
By replacing the abnormal function with the normal function, the potential for seizure activity could be significantly erased.
2. Replace neurons that are lost or dysfunctional, to help memory.
Some people with epilepsy have memory complaints.
There are a multitude of possible reasons for people with seizures to have memory issues — medication side-effects, seizure activity, and mood problems are commonly identified causes.
Some patients have memory problems related to losing neurons or dysfunctional neurons in the area of the seizure focus.
By replacing the lost or dysfunctional neurons with normally functioning neurons derived from stem cells, memory problems could be significantly improved.
3. Transplant stem cells that have the ability to produce a chemical to stop seizures.
They can be programmed to become neurons that produce a neurotransmitter called GABA.
This is a chemical which can stop the overly active neuronal function that can produce seizures.
GABA results in inhibition of neurons (opposes the excitation of dysfunctional neurons).
If stem cell derived neurons could produce a high quantity of GABA and were placed in the area where seizures started (seizure focus), the seizures could be stopped before they started!
SAFETY ISSUES AND STEM CELLS
There are several challenges that need to be worked out before stem cell therapy will be widely considered as safe:
1. Stem cells can lead to the development of tumors, because they have the ability to renew themselves for a long-term.
This issue is being studied. It needs to be considered safe before widespread clinical use will be possible.
2. Stem cells can lead to rejection by the body’s defense system.
When stem cells are placed into the brain, there is the potential for the body’s immune system to have a reaction to the stem cells, as if the stem cells are an infection that the body needs to get rid of.
This can lead to the stem cells being cleared away by the body’s immune system. Obviously, the stem cells will not be able to provide therapy if this occurs.
Again, this issue is being studied.
The idea of effectively controlling seizures holds promise.
Especially for those who don’t respond well to traditional medical intervention.
“Our results are an encouraging step toward using inhibitory neurons for cell transplantation in adults with severe forms of epilepsy,” states Scott C. Baraban, PhD.
“This procedure offers the possibility of controlling seizures and rescuing cognitive deficits in these patients.”
Another article of interest:
‘Epilepsy in a Dish’: Stem Cell Research Reveals Clues to Disease’s Origins and May Aid Search for Better Drugs
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