World-first stem cell therapy trial begins

When 67-year-old Kevin Baird arrived at Monash Medical Centre in February after having a stroke, he was no longer able to receive standard stroke treatments. Unfortunately for Kevin, the stroke had left him with significant speech problems and upper-limb weakness.

“Before the treatment they asked me if I could raise my hands,” Mr Baird said. “I thought ‘Of course I can raise my hands, just watch.’

“But then when I actually tried to, I couldn’t. I was only speaking in a mumble as well.”

“About day after I received the treatment as part of the trial, and I started to notice progress,” Mr Baird said. “And I’ve come on in leaps and bounds since then. I believe it helped tremendously.”

Director of Neurology at Monash Health, Associate Professor Henry Ma, said that Mr Baird’s initial presentation was unfortunately all-too-common.

“Stroke is the second-leading cause of death globally, and leaves a huge number of people with significant disability,” Prof Ma said.

“We have fantastic treatments for stroke such as endovascular clot retrieval and also clot-busting medications, but we know that for too many patients even these treatments are not enough. A significant number of patients may not have access to these therapies or they’re not possible due to circumstances.”

Stem cells as treatment for stroke

Professor Chris Sobey from La Trobe University and Associate Professor Rebecca Lim from Hudson Institute of Medical Research had been working with Associate Professor Ma and Professor Thanh Phan, Head of Stroke at Monash Health, to explore amniotic stem cells as a possible treatment for acute ischemic stroke patients.

Associate Professor Lim, Head of Amnion Cell Research at Hudson, said that amniotic stem cell therapies have, theoretically, a lot of advantages.

“These cells carry no immunological rejection risk,” Associate Professor Lim said. “They don’t have to be matched and cultured and surgically injected as some other modes of stem cell therapy require.”

Preliminary research that took place prior to this trial suggested that the stem cells, delivered intravenously, travel through the body but congregate where they’re actually needed – around damaged brain tissue.

For Professor Sobey, the Co-Director of La Trobe’s Research Centre for Cardiovascular Biology and Disease, this versatility made them ideal for acute stroke situations, where time is critical.

“After a stroke the key is working to save neurons before they die. ‘Time is brain’ is the catchcry, so by rapidly treating a stroke and saving brain tissue, we reduce lasting damage which can cause disability,” Professor Sobey said.

Remarkable recovery

While the purpose of the trial is to establish the treatment’s safety, Mr Baird has had a remarkable recovery after the stroke treatment.

After experiencing significant speech problems and arm weakness, Mr Baird now has some very mild facial droop, and MRIs show there is no further damage to his brain tissue beyond the initial stroke.

The current trial is not examining the efficacy of the treatment.

“We need to be very cautious and establish safety, first-and-foremost. That is the current trial’s focus,” said Associate Professor Lim. “However we are extremely encouraged by the fact that Mr Baird’s brain tissue has shown such good outcomes.”

Professor Sobey agreed, saying that Mr Baird’s case meant their trial was attracting attention from major stroke centres around the world.

“It is a long process, but we are hopeful that this collaboration can contribute to the next great breakthrough in global stroke care, and prevent ongoing disability for patients.”

“I commend these researchers for searching out new ways to protect us against the too often devastating impact of stroke and look forward to seeing where this promising research leads,” Victorian Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos said.

“Victoria is a world leader in ground-breaking health and medical research and is home to some of the world’s best clinicians, scientists and researchers. We’re leading the way in breakthrough discoveries to fast-track new treatments and save the lives of more people at home and around the world.”

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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