Stem cells and SCI

Rolling Inspiration
By Rolling Inspiration
4 Min Read

The environment of the spinal cord changes drastically during the first few weeks after injury. Could stem cells help? ZELMARIE GOOSEN investigates

Stem cell research has been at the forefront of medical research for a few years now, and one area using the opportunity is the field of spinal cord injury (SCI).

Recent clinical work has indicated that intensive rehabilitation can improve motor function in SCI patients even several years post injury. Neuralstem’s NSI-566 neural stem cells could provide a neuron-rich substrate to the injured spinal cord segments, possibly promoting and supporting repair, regeneration and reorganisation.

According to, studies in animals have shown that a transplantation of stem cells or stem-cell-derived cells may contribute to spinal cord repair by:

  • Replacing the nerve cells that have died as a result of the injury;
  • Generating new supporting cells that will re-form the insulating nerve sheath (myelin) and act as a bridge across the injury to stimulate regrowth of damaged axons;
  • Protecting the cells at the injury site from further damage by releasing protective substances such as growth factors, and soaking up toxins such as free radicals, when introduced into the spinal cord shortly after injury.
  • Preventing spread of the injury by suppressing the damaging inflammation that can occur after injury.

Different cell types, including stem cells, from a variety of sources, including brain tissue, the lining of the nasal cavity, tooth pulp, and embryonic stem cells, have been tested in these studies – mostly conducted in rat models of spinal cord injuries. None of these cells have produced more than a partial recovery of function, but it is an active area of research, and several different types of stem cell are being tested and modified.

According to, the adult stem cells used to treat spinal cord injuries at the Stem Cell Institute come from two sources: the patient’s own bone marrow and human umbilical cord tissue. Umbilical cords are donated by mothers after normal, healthy births.

A licensed anaesthesiologist harvests bone marrow from both hips under light general anaesthesia in a hospital operating theatre. This procedure takes about 1,5 to 2 hours. Before they are administered to the patient, these bone marrow-derived stem cells must pass testing for quality, bacterial contamination (aerobic and anaerobic) and endotoxin.

Heinrich Terblanche – one of the recipients of the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund – recently underwent a stem cell transplant in White River. Terblanche is 26 years old and was injured at the beginning of 2015. He is an incomplete quadriplegic who manages to self-propel in a manual wheelchair and manages to walk with lots of assistance. “The transplant was administered through a drip – first I received white blood cells and after about a week, I was given the stem cells. The reason I did it this way is because it is safe and there are no known complications. It takes about six months to see any improvement – I had it done five months ago. It doesn’t work every time, but I believe if you do it more than once, you will definitely see some improvements,” he explains.

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