Saturday, April 2, 2011

By: Kate Hagan, The Sydney (Australia) Morning News

Australian children with cerebral palsy will be offered a pioneering treatment using their own umbilical cord blood to provide some of the world’s first evidence about its effectiveness at repairing damaged brain tissue.

Researchers are seeking ethics approval for a trial at Melbourne’s Monash Medical Centre that would offer the treatment to 20 children to determine whether it can cure or relieve the symptoms of cerebral palsy.

Joanne Kurtzberg, of North Carolina’s Duke University, has reinfused the cord blood of about 250 children with cerebral palsy over the past five years, but has published no scientific data on its effectiveness.

Brisbane parents Stephen and Gabrielle Archer travelled to the US at a cost of $40,000 to have their son Zac, 5, treated. He was left with cerebral palsy and epilepsy after suffering a stroke aged four months.

Since having his cord blood reinfused four months ago the Archers say movement on Zac’s right side is improving and he is having about 20 partial (or focal) seizures a day, compared with 100 previously.

The blood that remains in a baby’s umbilical cord and placenta after birth is rich in stem cells, which have the ability to develop into other body cells.

Southern Health’s director of obstetrics, Professor Euan Wallace, said animal studies suggested stem cells in cord blood could repair or assist in the repair of brain injuries.

One of the theories is that the stem cells go to the damaged area and recruit cells within the brain to repair it, but the exact mechanism is unknown.

”If it doesn’t work then Australian families shouldn’t be spending $40,000 going to the US. If it does work then we need to know about it because for the first time we would have a treatment that actually reverses cerebral palsy. That would be astonishing,” he said.

Professor Wallace said that all the children involved in the trial – expected to start this year – would be offered the treatment.

”It’s a slightly unusual trial design – all of the children will be offered the blood and a full neurological assessment, and then randomised to have the cord blood either straight away or in three months before being reassessed.

”That way you are not be withholding treatment from any child, but you have a small core of children where you can see whether the cells are working or not.”

Cord blood is used to treat blood disorders such as leukaemia in donor recipients – and a public bank in Australia collects it for that purpose. It also shows promise in the emerging field of regenerative medicine to repair damaged or diseased tissues.

Children in the trial may have been able to reclaim their cord blood from the public bank, or stored it in a private bank.

Medical director of the private cord blood bank Cell Care, Associate Professor Mark Kirkland, said the trial would be one of the world’s first to assess the efficacy of cord blood in human disease. ”This is the first of what I think will be a large number,” he said.

Stem cells in cord blood have also been proposed as a treatment for conditions including spinal cord injury, diabetes, liver and heart disease.