New Analysis of Stem Cell Treatments for Spinal Cord Injury in Laboratory Animals

A host of preclinical studies have examined the ability of stem cells to improve the condition of laboratory animals that have suffered a spinal cord injury. While these studies vary in their size, design, and quality, there has been little cumulative analysis of the data generated by these studies.

Fortunately, there is a powerful analytical tool that can examine data from many studies and this type of analysis is called a “meta-analysis.” Meta-analyses use sophisticated statistical packages to systematically reassess a compilation of the data contained within these papers. Meta-analyses are exhausting, but potentially very useful. Such a meta-analysis is also very important because it provides researchers with an indication of what problems must be worked out before these treatments advance to human clinical trials and what aspects of the treatment work better than others.

A recent meta-analysis of stem cell therapy on animal models of spinal cord injury has been published by Ana Antonic, MSc, David Howells, Ph.D., and colleagues from the Florey Institute and the University of Melbourne, Australia, along with Malcolm MacLeod and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh, UK in the open access journal PLOS Biology.

The goal of regenerative spinal cord treatments is to use stem cells to replace dead cells within damaged areas of the spinal cord. Such treatments would be given to spinal cord injury patients in the hope of improving the ability to move and to feel below the site of the injury. Many experiments that utilize animal models of spinal cord injury have used stem cells to treat laboratory animals that have suffered spinal cord injury, but, unfortunately, these studies are limited in scale by size (as a result of financial considerations), practical and ethical considerations. Such limitations hamper each individual study’s statistical power to detect the true effects of the stem cell implantation. Also, these studies use different types of stem cells in their treatment scenarios, inject those cells differently induce spinal cord injuries differently, and test their animals for functional recovery differently.

To assess these studies, this new paper examined 156 published studies, all of which tested the effects of stem cell treatments on about 6,000 spinal cord-injured animals.

Overall, they found that stem cell treatment results in an average improvement of about 25 percent over the post-injury performance in both sensory (ability to feel) and motor (ability to move) outcomes. Unfortunately, the variation from one animal to another varied widely.

For sensory outcomes the degree of improvement tended to increase with the number of cells implanted. Such dose-responsive results tend to indicate that the improvements are actually due to the stem cells, and therefore, this stem cell-mediated effect represents a genuine biological effect.

The authors also measured the effects of bias. Simply put, if the experimenters knew which animals were treated and which were untreated, then they might be more likely to report improvements in the stem cell-treated animals. They also examined the way that the stem cells were cultured, the way that the spinal injury was generated and the way that outcomes were measured. In each case, important lessons were learned that should help inform and refine the design of future animal studies.

The meta-analysis also revealed some surprises that should provoke further investigations. For example, there was little evidence that female animals showed any beneficial sensory effects as a result of stem cell treatments. Also, the efficacy of the stem cell treatment seemed to not depend on whether immunosuppressive drugs were administered or not.

The authors conclude, “Extensive recent preclinical literature suggests that stem cell-based therapies may offer promise; however the impact of compromised internal validity and publication bias means that efficacy is likely to be somewhat lower than reported here.”

Even though human clinical trials are in the works, such trials will continue to be informed by preclinical studies on laboratory animals.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).