Treating Cerebral Palsy with Cord Blood

FDA clinical trials are currently testing cord blood therapy as a way to treat cerebral palsy. These studies continue to collect new data, but researchers have already found cellular therapy improves cognitive reasoning and brain cell development.

What is cerebral palsy?

Most often, cerebral palsy develops because of physical trauma before, during or directly after birth. Since the brain is still developing and is extremely sensitive, any damage can affect the child’s motor skills and reflexes. Common symptoms include difficulty seeing, learning, hearing and moving. These side effects are caused by low levels of oxygen, infections, and birth-related head injuries.

The severity of cerebral palsy changes from patient to patient – some children walk easily, while others may not be able to walk at all. Other children show exaggerated reflexes, posture issues and difficulty processing information. Although rare, epilepsy and blindness are also symptoms of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is usually caused by:

  • Mutation in the brain cells
  • A stroke before or during birth
  • Bodily injury (commonly head trauma)
  • Asphyxia – a limited amount of oxygen in the brain
  • Infections in the womb
  • Inflammation

While most children with cerebral palsy are born with the condition, they may not show symptoms for several months, or even a few years. The earlier this disorder is identified the better, since most treatments involve physical conditioning and younger children adapt to these therapies faster. In certain cases, surgery, prescription medication and even leg braces are necessary for a complete treatment.

Cerebral palsy symptoms

Common symptoms for cerebral palsy include:

  • Stiff muscles
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Tremors
  • Motor skill problems
  • Difficulty eating
  • Trouble with precise motions

Cord blood and cerebral palsy

Stem cells are a useful form of treatment for brain damage, since these cells naturally migrate to damaged areas and improve the healing process. Cord blood stem cells may have an advantage over other cells, since they don’t require an exact cell match. This means children with cerebral palsy don’t need to wait for the right donor – they can receive treatment using stem cell therapy almost immediately.

Cord blood cells are also safer, and have a smaller chance of graft-versus-host disease, where donated cells attack the host’s body. This is a common problem for bone marrow transplants.

Stem cell therapy is a relatively new medical procedure, and researchers are still performing clinical trials for cord blood and brain damage. However, early results are promising. Transplanted cells can increase neuronal growth, expand healthy blood cell count, and decrease cell death. In a clinical trial for stem cells and stroke, donated cells increased brain activity, and helped repair damaged brain tissue.

Stem cell therapy

The umbilical cord may be the best area to collect stem cells, since these cells are “immature”, and adapt to fit the individual needs of a patient. When parents donate or store their baby’s umbilical cord blood, the cord is removed during pregnancy – like any normal birthing procedure – and cleaned. After sterilizing the cord, medical staff remove stem cells from the blood, and store them cryogenically. These cells are then accessible at any point in the future if the family needs them.

Although bone marrow is a valuable source of stem cells, patients need an exact match for bone marrow cells to be effective. Cord blood allows patients to use mismatched cells, and has a lower chance of graft-versus-host disease compared to bone marrow transplants.

Advantages of cord blood treatment

  • Patients using cord blood stem cells will have more options, since they don’t need an exact match
  • Cord blood stem cells are the most anti-inflammatory source of cells in the body
  • The cells stored in the umbilical cord are painless to collect, unlike bone marrow, which may harm donors
  • As more research is collected, medical experts believe cord blood cells may be more potent than other sources, including bone marrow

Clinical trials are testing new cord blood therapies for brain damage. Find out more about these trials here.