Spinal cord injuries represent one of the most intractable problems for regenerative medicine. When the spinal cord is injured, a tissue that is normally isolated from the bloodstream, now comes into contact with a variety of inflammatory factors and cells that increase the destruction of the original lesion. The spinal responds with a glial scar that plugs the lesion and prevents further exposure of the spinal cord to damaging inflammation, but the scar is also filled with molecules that repel neuronal axon growth cones. This spells curtains for neuronal regeneration, and finding a cell type that can negotiate around the glial scar and find the original muscle is a genuine tour de force.
Given this to be the case, there have been many experiments in rodents to examine the efficacy of various stem cell populations to as treatments for spinal cord injuries. A recent paper in Stem Cell Research and Therapy (van Gorp et al., 2013, 4:57) has examined human fetal spinal cord-derived neural stem cells (HSSCs) and their ability to restore motor function in rats with spinal cord injuries to the lower back. Because this group examined movement and spinal cord tissue samples, this paper contributes something significant to our knowledge of HSSC-mediate healing of spinal cord injuries.
The HSSC line used in this paper is neural stem cell line NSI566RSC, which was extracted from the spinal cord of an 8-week old “fetus.” I have placed fetus in quotes because at eight weeks, the fetus is actually a very old embryo, since the end of the eighth week is end of embryonic development. I realize that these types of age calculations have room for error, and therefore, the baby might very well have been at the early fetal stage. However, the baby’s mother terminated her pregnancy (yes it was an abortion and no I am not cool with that) and donated the dead baby’s tissue to UC San Diego for research purposes.
Sprague-Daley rats were subjected to spinal cord injuries at the level of the third lumbar vertebra. Three days later, half of the rats were given saline injections into their spinal cord and the other half were given HSSC injections into their spinal cords. The animals were evaluated for two months after the treatments on a daily basis. After two months, the rats were sacrificed (put down) and the spinal cord tissue was extensively analyzed.
Of the 35 animals employed in this study, 3 were excluded because of paw injuries or drug toxicity. Eight weeks after the cells were implanted, the rats were tested with a CatWalk apparatus to determine their gait. The rats injected with HSSCs showed a much more normal gait than those injected with saline. To give you some idea of the improvement, the rats that were not injured had a RCHPP or rostro-caudal hind paw positioning score of 0+/- 1.7mm, and the saline injected animals had an average RCHPP of -18 +/- 3.1 mm, and those injected with HSSCs had an RCHPP of -9.0 +/- 1.9 mm.
Despite these improvements, there were no significant differences in ladder climbing, stride length, overall coordination, or single-frame motion.
Next, Marsala and colleagues showed that the muscle spasms associated with spinal cord injury were slightly decreased by the implantation of HSSCs and not by injection of saline. To measure spasticity, the ankle or front paw is rotated and the electromyograph of the muscle is measured. The electromyograph or EMG measures the electrical activity of the muscle showed modest improvements in the HSSC-injected animals
Sensory sensitivity was improved in the HSSC-injected animals, and this improvement was progressive. When the rats were prodded below the level of the injury, where they should have no feeling, the HSSC-injected rats showed better response to the stimulation. This was the case with mechanical stimulation and thermal stimulation.
Post-mortem analysis also showed something interesting. When the fluid-filled cavity of the damaged spine was examined, the HSSC-injected animals had a significantly small cavity. Because the injected cells had been labeled with green fluorescent protein, they glowed under UV light and any neuronal cells derived from the injected HSSCs glowed green too. The lesioned areas in the HSSC-injected mice were repopulated with cells. Motorneurons, interneurons and glial cells were detected.
What to make of this study? The repopulation of the spinal cord and the growth of spinal nerve elements within the fluid-filled cavity is remarkable, but the lack of better motor function is disappointing. The recovery of sensory ability is significant, especially, since it is pretty clearly not due to spinal hypersensitivity.
There are two possibilities for the low motor recovery. First, there is a possibility that the these experiments were not conducted for as long a time period as they needed to be. Since the sensory ability improvement was progressive, maybe the motor recovery was too, perhaps? Secondly, maybe the grow and connection of motor neurons had trouble with the glial scar. Why the sensory nerves did not have such a problem and the motor neurons would is inexplicable at this time. However, another possibility is that the muscular targets of motor neurons are not as obvious in adult animals as they are in a developing animal. Finding ways to “paint” the muscles might be a way to increase motor neuron innervation in the future.
Thus, this cell line, NSI-566 RSC is certainly a potential treatment for spinal cord patients. A phase I trial is in the works.