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Can stem cells treat paralysis?

Treating paralysis is still one of medicine’s great challenges. Thousands of people become paralyzed every year, leaving them with impaired mobility, speech, or the ability to care for themselves.  But could a new treatment be on the horizon?

What Causes Paralysis?

There is no single cause of paralysis.  However, it is usually the result of some type of injury or brain trauma, although some paralysis—such as that resulting from Bell’s Palsy or Guillain-Barré Syndrome—can be precipitated by viral infections.  Paralysis can prohibit movement in any part of the body, either partially or completely, as damaged nerve endings no longer receive signals from the brain center.  Depending on the cause or extent of the damage, paralysis can be temporary or permanent, and treatment is usually limited. However, one possibility is showing great promise:  Stem Cells.

What Are Stem Cells?

A stem cell is one of the most basic forms of cells.  It has the ability to develop into specialized types of cells, a feature known as pluripotency.  Stem cells can be injected into tissue to regenerate or repair damaged cells that are linked to conditions affecting mobility, speech, autoimmune disorders, or even cognitive functioning.   Stem Cells are collected from different sources, such as:

Embryos, (fertilized human eggs), which are laboratory-controlled to develop into different types of cells;

Umbilical cords (the passageway connecting a mother and a newborn child), taken immediately following birth;

Adult donors, through the extraction of blood transfusions or bone marrow transplants;

The patient him/herself, particularly in the case of cancer treatment.

How Do They Work?

Stem cells are removed from the donor’s blood or bone marrow and injected intravenously into the recipient. These cells then release substances, attach to tissues that need repair and regenerate damaged cells, improving functionality of organs.  Mesenchymal pluripotent stem cells can actually transform into cells to perform specific bodily functions. They also have the potential to slow or limit cell injury, for example, like that damage found in the nerve tissues of paralyzed patients.

Since stem cell research has helped thousands of people with other conditions, such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, stroke, and even diseases of the bones, hepatic insufficiency, and kidneys, there is no reason to doubt that paralysis will eventually take a prominent place on the list of conditions improved by stem cells.  As research continues, patients with paralysis can look hopefully to a future when their bodies can perform normal activity.

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