Previous studies have shown that stem cells can halt spinal motor neuron degeneration and restore function in animals with spinal cord injury or ALS. However, this study is the first to show that transplanted neurons can form functional connections with the adult mammalian nervous system, the researchers say. They used both electrophysiological and behavioral studies to verify that the recovery was due to connections between the peripheral nervous system and the transplanted neurons.
"We've previously shown that stem cells can protect at-risk neurons, but in ongoing neurodegenerative diseases, there is a very small window of time to do so. After that, there is nothing left to protect," says Dr. Kerr. "To overcome the loss of function, we need to actually replace lost neurons."
While these results are promising, much work remains before a similar strategy could be tried in humans, Dr. Kerr says. The therapy must first be tested in larger animals to determine if the nerves can reconnect over longer distances and to make sure the treatments are safe. There currently is no large-animal model for motor neuron degeneration, so Dr. Kerr's group is working to develop a pig model. Researchers also need to test human embryonic stem cells to learn if they will work in the same way as the mouse cells. It has only recently become possible to grow motor neurons from human embryonic stem cells, Dr. Kerr adds. However, if the future studies go well, this type of therapy might eventually be useful for spinal muscular atrophy, ALS, and other motor neuron diseases.
*Deshpande D, Kim YS, Martinez T, Carmen J, Dike S, Shats I, Rubin L, Drummond J, Krishnan C, Hoke A, Maragakis N, Shefner J, Ro
Source:NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke