Spinal cord injuries are a widely unresolved medical challenge.  Whilst there have been significant advances in medical research, we do not yet have any curative treatment to assist those who have sustained a spinal cord injury. 

It is estimated that 2,500 people are injured or diagnosed with a spinal cord injury every year in the UK - the Spinal Injuries Association/Aspire/BackUp data - and between 250,000 and 500,000 globally a year - World Health Organisation.  The total number of people living with a spinal cord injury in the UK is approximately 50,000.  

The majority of spinal cord injuries are due to traumatic causes including road traffic collision, falls or violence.  Permanent symptoms include partial or complete loss of sensory function and/or motor control of your limbs and body. They can also affect the systems that regulate the bladder and bowel control, breathing and blood pressure. 

It has historically been recognised and accepted that early rehabilitation and adequate medical care can improve the long-term prognosis for an individual who has sustained a spinal cord injury.  

However, more recently a new emerging medical trial in America, known as stem cell grafting, has been gaining momentum for its positive progress.   Using stem cells to restore functions lost after a spinal cord injury has been an ambition for scientists and doctors for some time.  Although previous research has shown improved functioning after neural stem cell grafts in animals, scientists have been unable to explain exactly what is happening although it appears that a recent study may have made progress with this.

Recent research

A new paper published in August 2022 in the journal of JCI Insight confirmed that researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have been investigating whether stem cell grafting in conjunction with rehabilitation can in fact advance or hinder recovery and prognosis.  Using a rat model, the researchers induced a cervical lesion that impaired the animal's ability to grasp with its forelimbs.  There were four groups compared, two of which included grafting of neural stem cells without rehabilitation, and the other with grafting of neural stem cells with rehabilitation.  The researchers found that rehabilitation enhanced regeneration of injured corticospinal axons at the lesion site in rats, and with the combination of rehabilitation, a significant recovery in forelimb grasping was witnessed. 

The research shows that by implementing and grafting neural stem cells directly into the spinal cords of animals, the grafts can grow and fill the injury sites, integrating with and mimicking the animals’ existing neuronal network, and alongside rehabilitation, the recovery can be maximised.  The researchers hope that they can move the stem cell graft approach into clinical trials with regulatory authorities as soon as possible. 

The future

There is an unmet need to improve recovery and prognosis after a spinal cord injury, and it may well be that these new findings lead the way to a potential new treatment and strategy in improving prognosis for individuals who have sustained a spinal cord injury.

While there is no definitive or quick answer to what the future holds in terms of possible curative treatment for spinal cord injured individuals, there certainly is dedication from our medical professionals and scientists across the globe in finding solutions to the most serious medical conditions.

Of course, it is yet to be seen whether stem cell grafting will indeed pave the way in providing a path for curative treatment for a spinal cord injury, but we can certainly watch this space.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people following a spinal injury at our dedicated spinal cord injury claims section.