Stroke affects around 150, 000 people in the UK and is the third most common cause of death.
It is the equivalent of a Boeing 747 fully laden, crashing, killing everybody onboard every single week. (Professor Pankaj Sharma, Consultant Neurologist at University of London, Imperial College and The London Clinic)
But strokes are not always fatal, quite the opposite; and now scientists at the University in Gyeonggi-do, Korea have published findings that offer great hope in improving the recovery of the thousands of stroke survivors who are living with a range of physical, emotional and cognitive effects of stroke by infusing the damaged brain with stem cells from the placentas of newborn babies.
For those who have experienced the sudden, frightening and potenitally lethal effect of stroke, the name is inappropriate. “It’s a soft, inoffensive word,” says stroke survivor and broadcaster Robert McMcrum, “you stroke a baby or a lover; but it’s a lethal affliction and one that hits every part of the community every day.” McCrum prefers the term Brain Attack.
Following a brain attack, sufferers might experience difficulty swallowing, fatigue, pain, epilepsy, paralysis, depression, memory loss and a myriad of other debilitations.
Our brains are us so a brain attack is like having an earthquake at the centre of your fragile self. (Robert McMcrum)
Talking about his own widely reported experience of stroke, Andrew Marr describes the time and effort required by stroke patients to begin “to come to terms with the fact that I will never be 100%”
Stem cells are often described as superheroes. The parent cells of all other cells in our bodies, stem cells can repair damage, irradicate disease and regenerate indefinitely. In recent years stem cells have been the focus of a great deal of stroke research due to their ability to reduce inflammation and to suppress immune responses. Post-stroke inflammation can hinder recovery and is responsible for many of the symptoms expereinced by stroke survivors.
Stem cells from the human placenta offer therapeutic promise in reducing the brain inflammation associated with stroke… The team found that CD200 (an anti-inflammatory factor) is a key molecule in the beneficial effects of stem cells in the early phase of stroke. The authors conclude that placental stem cells have great potential in effectively treating inflammation-related diseases. (TaeHo Kong et al, Experimental Molecular Medicine)
Andrew Marr has described stem cell therapy as “the next big thing” in stroke treatment. So why isn’t it the big thing right now? The answer is that stem cells are not easy to source. Bone marrow has become the most common source of stem cells for the treatment of an enormous range of diseases, conditions and injuries, but as anyone who has had bone-marrow will tell you, it isn’t easy or pleasant to have bone marrow extracted. And the problem is not just accessibility: there must also be a good match between patient and donor and stem cells must be healthy and in large numbers.
Umbilical cord blood has provided a solution in the collection of uncontroversial stem cells for the treatment of diseases of the blood and immune systems since 1988. Umbilical cord blood is rich in haematopoetic stem cells, blood cells that can treat blood cancers and over 80 other conditions. These cells are not the cells required to treat stroke patients as the damage sustained by these individuals is to the brain tissue, not the blood or immune systems.
Umbilical cord tissue has been collected and stored for a number of years by forward-thinking bio-tech companies and cord blood storage facilities because it contains mesenchynmal stem cells – the parent cells of all tissue cells in the human body, and the stem cells required to treat the brain injury sustained by stroke patients.
This latest research, published by Nature , shows that mesencyhmal stem cells can be collected from the placenta as well as the umbilical cord, raising hopes that the after-birth of newborn infants, generally discarded as medical waste, could provide an almost unlimited source of desperately needed mesenchymal stem cells.
Immunomodulatory effect of CD200-positive human placenta-derived stem cells in the early phase of stroke, TaeHo Kong et al. Experimental & Molecular Medicine 50, e425(2018) https://www.nature.com/articles/emm2017233
The Life in My Head: From Stroke to Brain Attack http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0540b3p