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Will Embryonic Stem Cell Treatments Help NMO Patients?

Published on April 2, 2010

Michael Levy, MD:

The power of an embryonic STEM cell is that it’s this completely undifferentiated STEM cell that can turn into whatever you want to turn it into, if you know how to do that. And in NMO, when there’s tissue damage, even after you treat them and they get a little bit better, they’re left with damage. And the damage is usually in the spinal cord. And there isn’t a lot of room there to damage it, just a tiny focus of damage can really impair a whole side of the body. And the same in the optic nerve. There’s just not a lot of room for damage. And even after all the inflammation is gone and you can prevent another relapse, which is a common goal in NMO, then you’re still left with, well, how do I help my patient walk better? How do I help them see better?

Michael Levy, MD:

And the only solution there is is restorative therapy and that would take advantage of STEM cells. What you want to do is you want to replace the tissue that’s damaged. And the only way to do that in the central nervous system is with STEM cells. The body doesn’t tend to heal very well from a central nervous system inflammatory event. What we’re going to have to do is introduce STEM cells into those areas and direct them to become neurons, those are the actual cells that fire and make the body move or feel. We want to turn them into oligodendrocytes. These are the cells that form a protective sheath around the axons. It’s how the electrical signals get to the body. And then we also want to turn them into astrocytes, and the correct type of astrocytes that are not susceptible to an NMO and introduce all these different cell types into the areas that are destroyed and hope that they can recover some actual function.

Michael Levy, MD:

There’s two problems with embryonic STEM cells. One is obviously they come from embryos, nobody likes the idea of taking an embryo, taking it apart and using the parts to treat somebody else. It’s not pleasant to think about. It turns out though, that there are a lot of embryos that are otherwise just discarded from fertility clinics, for example. Rather than discard them well, maybe we can use them. The other problem with STEM cells is you think you can turn them into what you want to turn them into, but they sometimes have a mind of their own. And just like embryos grow double in size every day, sometimes these cells just tend to grow out of control and form tumors. And the idea is we really want to make sure we have good control over what we turn these embryonic STEM cells into. Right now we’re at the level where we don’t have that certainty.


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