At the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM), scientists have discovered the presence of neural stem cells in the human spinal cord. Although neural stem cells had previously been discovered in the brain and spinal cord of adult rodents several years ago, this marks the first discovery of neural stem cells in human brains and spinal cords. Such a discovery corroborates new supporting evidence that the human central nervous system (CNS) is in fact capable of regeneration – a radical idea which shatters the previously revered, though incorrect, dogma that the CNS is incapable of regeneration.
Using electron microscopy to detect neural precursor cell markers, the researchers at INSERM were able to identify and isolate adult neural stem cells from the human spinal cord. The stem cells were then cultured in vitro and found to differentiate into both neurons and glial cells. Research is now focused on the use of such endogenous neural stem cells in the treatment of neurodegenerative and demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), as well as in the treatment of spinal cord injury (SCI). It is currently estimated that approximately a third of a million people throughout Europe, and a quarter of a million people in the U.S., suffer from SCI, with approximately 10,000 new cases occurring each year in each of these demographic regions. The majority of people who suffer SCIs are betweeen the ages of 25 and 30, and the resulting paralysis has often been regarded as permanent and irreversible.
Now, however, new hope is available as a reult of this important discovery that neural stem cells naturally reside within the CNS. According to Dr. Alain Privat, Research Director at INSERM, “This work constitutes a major step forward for all the pathologies affecting the motoneurons for which no treatment exists at the present time.”
The research was funded by the RESCUE (Research Endeavor for Spinal Cord in United Europe) Project, which in turn is funded by the European Commission FP6 Research Progrramme. RESCUE is a consortium of stem cell biologists and experts in spinal cord pathology from 9 European research centers, the mission of which is to advance novel stem cell therapies for spinal cord injury toward clinical trials. Known technically as translational medicine, such a process involves “translating” the results of experimental laboratory studies into clinical therapeutic paradigms. RESCUE researchers are dedicated to the implementation of such translational medical procedures specifically as applied to new therapeutic protocols for the treatment of SCI.