Umbilical cord blood improves motor skills in some children with cerebral palsy

The NHS defines cerebral palsy as: “a group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and coordination, caused by a problem with the brain that occurs before, during or soon after birth.”

Up until now, there has been no cure for cerebral palsy, but an exciting new study by leading stem cell scientists at Duke University, North Carolina, has successfully used umbilical cord blood to improve motor skills in some children with the condition, leaving specialists optimistic that cord blood stem cells will improve the lives of sufferers in the future. 

An infusion of cord blood stem cells from a child’s own umbilical cord has been shown to improve brain connectivity and motor function in children with cerebral palsy. The results of a randomized clinical trial published this week by Stem Cells Translational Medicine could transform the lives of those living with the condition.

The placebo-controlled, phase two trial included 63 children with varied types and severities of cerebral palsy. Children who received one intravenous dose of at least 25 million stem cells per kilogram of their body weight saw improvements in motor function a year later. The improvements were greater than those typically observed for children of similar age and condition and exceeded the gains made by children who received a lower dose of cells or a placebo.

We are encouraged by the results of this study, which shows that appropriately dosed infusions of cord blood cells can help lessen symptoms in children with cerebral palsy. (Joanne Kurtzberg, M.D., director of Duke’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant)

“Previous research has indicated it’s safe for children with cerebral palsy to receive an infusion of their own cord blood,” Kurtzberg said. “Now that we have identified a dosing threshold, we are planning additional studies testing the benefits of multiple doses of cells, as well as the use of donor cells for patients whose own cord blood was not banked.”

Cerebral Palsy treated with umbilical cord blood infusion

Umbilical cord blood has been found to be a rich source of blood stem cells to treat cancers, neurological disorders and genetic diseases. Cord blood also contains other therapeutic cells that researchers believe could influence the formation of new neural connections in children with cerebral palsy.

In the cerebral palsy trial, Kurtzberg and colleagues tested doses from 10 million cells per kilogram of body weight up to 50 million cells per kilogram, based on the amount and quality of the cord blood each child had in storage. Among the tools used to evaluate the children’s progress were MRI to measure brain connectivity and the Gross Motor Function Measure (GMFM-66), a standardized analysis of a child’s ability to crawl, roll, kneel, and complete other movements based on age and development.

The improvements for children who received doses of at least 25 million cells per kilogram of body weight progressed beyond their expected increases when they were tested a year after infusion.

For each child, the improvements are different and could be subtle, but sometimes even a seemingly small difference is significant. For example, a child’s ability to turn their hand from facing down to facing up can change their ability to hold or grasp something, which can make a big difference in their everyday life. (Jessica Muller Sun, MD. Assistant Professor of Pediatrics)

The study had some limitations, including the requirement that participants have cord blood in storage and be able to travel to Duke, both of which required financial means, the authors said. Being from well-resourced families, most participants were also receiving frequent physical and occupational therapy, Sun said, and those advantages could have influenced the results.

“We are hopeful that cord blood and cell therapy may have a role in treating children with cerebral palsy and brain injury and are encouraged to continue this promising research,” Sun said.

Symptoms of cerebral palsy

The symptoms of cerebral palsy aren’t usually obvious when a baby is born, but become noticeable during the first two or three years of a child’s life. They can include delays in reaching developmental milestones – such as, not sitting by eight months or not walking by 18 months; seeming too stiff or too floppy; having weak arms or legs or random, uncontrolled movements. A range of other problems, such as swallowing difficulties, vision and speech problems and learning disabilities are also associated with cerebral palsy. The severity of symptoms can vary significantly. Some people only have minor problems, while others may be severely disabled.

Causes of cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy can occur if a baby’s brain doesn’t develop normally while in the womb, or is damaged during or soon after birth. It may be caused by bleeding in the baby’s brain or reduced blood and oxygen supply to their brain, or by an infection caught by the mother during pregnancy. Meningitis and serious head injuries may cause cerebral palsy but often the cause is unclear.

Treatments for cerebral palsy

Until now, physiotherapy, speech and occupational therapies and medications have been the only treatments available to help people with cerebral palsy to have as normal and independent a life as possible.

How to store your baby’s umbilical cord blood

Biovault Family take care of cord blood collection, processing and storage so that you can focus on taking care of yourself and your new baby. Find out more about our stem cell banking.

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Journal Reference:

  1. Sun, J. M., Song, A. W., Case, L. E., Mikati, M. A., Gustafson, K. E., Simmons, R., Goldstein, R., Petry, J., McLaughlin, C., Waters-Pick, B., Chen, L. W., Wease, S., Blackwell, B., Worley, G., Troy, J. and Kurtzberg, J. (2017), Effect of Autologous Cord Blood Infusion on Motor Function and Brain Connectivity in Young Children with Cerebral Palsy: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. STEM CELLS Translational Medicine. doi:10.1002/sctm.17-0102
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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