Cell transplantation therapies could provide potential benefit by replacing lost neurons, promoting regeneration of existing neurons, and filling in the spinal cord cavity to minimize further damage and inflammation.
A variety of cell types are under investigation. At The Miami Project, Schwann cell transplantation has been shown to promote axonal regeneration and remyelination of axons following spinal cord injury in animals. When combined with other cells or drugs, they also help minimize damage, remyelinate, and promote recovery of motor function in the animals. In humans, an advantage of using Schwann cells is the cells can be obtained from a small biopsy of a person’s own peripheral nerve to grow large numbers of the cells for a transplant.
Stem cells, or cells that have not differentiated to become a specific kind of cell, are currently being studied in several labs. Depending on signals they receive from the environment, stem cells can become neurons or other nervous system cells such as glia which support neurons. One glial cell, the oligodendrocyte, is the myelin-producing cell of the central nervous system. Researchers are designing ways to have embryonic stem cells develop into oligodendrocyte type cells. The goal of transplantation of these types of cells is to remyelinate axons. Investigators are showing that various types of stem cells, derived from embryonic, fetal or adult tissues, have the potential to replace or repair lost or damaged cells in the nervous system.
Another type of cell studied at The Miami Project is chromaffin cells which can release opioids, molecules that reduce pain. Researchers are transplanting chromaffin cells into the damaged spinal cords of animals that exhibit neuropathic pain.