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28 Apr 2015
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Prenatal stem cell treatment promises cure for spina bifida

Researchers in UC Davis Health System have found that Spina Bifida can be effectively treated using stem cell therapy with surgery.

Spina Bifida is a congenital disorder in which the spinal cord does not close properly leading to cognitive, urological, musculoskeletal and motor disabilities. The most common form of the disorder is Myelomeningocele which causes the spinal cord to emerge through the back, often pulling brain tissue into the spinal column and causing cerebrospinal fluid to fill the interior of the brain. Permanent shunts are required to drain the extra fluid. There is no cure for this condition. To prevent further damage to the nervous tissue paediatric neurosurgeons operate to close the opening on the back. The spinal cord and its nerve roots are put back inside the spine and covered with meninges. In addition a shunt may be surgically installed to provide a continuous drain for the excess cerebrospinal fluid produced in the brain. Surgery however improved only brain development but did not improve motor function.

The study led by Diana Farmer, a faetal surgeon, has found that the treatment when augmented with placental stem cells could actually be a cure. Farmer’s chief collaborator was Aijun Wang, co-director of the UC Davis Surgical Bioengineering Laboratory.

Wang and Farmer used lambs with myelomenigocele, which were first operated upon and then were given applications of human placenta-derived mesenchymal stromal cells. Among the test group and control group, the animals that received the application of the stem cells were able to walk within few hours following birth and the animals in the control group that did not receive the stem cell applications were unable to stand.

Farmer and Wang’s research is being funded by California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. With additional evaluation and FDA approval, the new therapy could be tested in human clinical trials.

"Fetal surgery provided hope that most children with spina bifida would be able to live without shunts," Farmer said. "Now, we need to complete that process and find out if they can also live without wheelchairs."

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