How can stem cells improve Michael Schumacher’s condition?

Nearly six years after Michael Schumacher had the skiing accident that changed his life, stem cells could be used to treat the F1 champion’s brain injuries.

According to quotes in Le Parisien, a member of staff at a Paris hospital treating the Formula 1 legend said he is awake after six years in a coma.

Schumacher is the most successful Formula One champion ever, with 91 Grand Prix titles to his name. But he is also a son, husband and father who had a devastating accident whilst on a skiing holiday.

The extent of Schmacher’s head injuries prompted doctors to place the 49-year-old in a medically-induced-coma for six months. Since then it is believed that he has been receiving treatment at his home in Switzerland.

This week, The Telegraph reported that Schumacher has been moved to a hospital in Paris for pioneering stem-cell therapy, provoking what the paper describes as “a fever of hope and speculation among fans” that his condition might improve.

Understandably, Schmacher’s health has been subject to a great deal of speculation. As stem cell specialists and the tissue bank for the NHS in our region, we have been following this story closely and hope to shed some light on the nature and ability of these therapeutic cells.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are cells which can differentiate into other types of cell, replacing damaged or diseased cells with healthy ones. According to research by The Telegraph, more than 26,000 patients are treated with blood stem cells in Europe each year.

Stem cells can be extracted from the bone marrow or peripheral blood of the patient or a donor. However, more and more parents are choosing to store their baby’s cord blood and tissue stem cells at birth to safeguard their children’s health in the future. The youth of umbilical cells have many advantages over both bone marrow and peripheral blood cells. Importantly, cord blood and tissue cells are also readily available without the need of an invasive procedure.

Find out more about family stem cell storage

Are stem cell therapies new?

Stem cell therapies are neither new nor experimental. The first cord blood stem cell transplant took place in 1988, and there have been tens of thousands of life-saving and enhancing umbilical stem cell therapies since that time.

What can stem cells treat?

So far, the majority of stem cell treatments have been to help patients with conditions affecting the blood and immune systems, such as leukaemia, sickle cell disease, MS or neuroblastoma. The flexibility of stem cells however, offers hope for many more illnesses and conditions including heart disease, macular degeneration and cerebral palsy – and clinical trials are progressing in all these areas.

Crucially, for patients like Schumacher, stem cells like those found in the umbilical cord are also being trialled for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s – and traumatic brain injuries like the one he suffered in a skiing accident in December 2013.

How might stem cells help Schumacher?

Research conducted by our friends and neighbours at the University of Plymouth (published in the journal Cell Reports in June) found that neural stem cells could be used to “wake up” and produce new neurons and surrounding glial cells in the brain.

We are working to expand our findings, to bring us closer to the day when human neural stem cells can be controlled and efficiently used to facilitate brain damage repair, or even prevent brain cancer growth that is fuelled by stem-like cells.

Claudia Barros, from the Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine at the University of Plymouth

It is early days for stem cell therapies for the nervous system, however, stem cells have been used successfully to treat patients with brain trauma in the past.

What do we know about Schumacher’s condition

His privacy is closely guarded and, nothing has been confirmed officially but there has been speculation that Schumacher may be treated by a doctor whose name, little known to the general public, is renowned in the medical field. Professor Philippe Ménasché, 69, is a pioneer in cell therapy. 

Schumacher has always been at the forefront of technology and ideas, exploring any avenues that might lead him to improve his performance.

“Now,” writes The Telegraph, “it seems Schumacher is reportedly at the cutting-edge of medicine.”


stem cell preservation

BSc (Hons) Microbiology

Chief Executive Officer | Biovault Family

Biovault Family CEO, Kate Sneddon, joined Biovault in July 2009 and became Chief Executive Officer in 2016. As health industry professional her experience includes working as a microbiologist and leader at GSK for over 10 years. Her expertise in cord blood banking has been recognised in her awards, features in Parliamentary Review and Parents Guide to Cord Blood, as well as contributions to research with UCL and others.

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