Future Directions in Stroke- Stem Cell Therapy

Stroke is a functional change in brain activity that is caused by brain cell death resulting from the lack of adequate blood flow to brain tissue.

Organ Transplant

Many diseases of the body can be cured with tissue or organ transplant. Human tissue such as skin and blood vessels can be safely transferred from one area of the body to another through skin graft and vein or artery bypass graft techniques.

Blood transfusion from a donor to a recipient has long been an effective, life-saving process. For years, organ transplantation procedures such as liver transplant, kidney transplant, heart transplant and lung transplant have been successful in curing serious illnesses and saving lives. Nevertheless, a brain transplant has never been an option for stroke survivors or victims of any brain disease. 

Brain Transplant?

However, recent stroke research has demonstrated that there may finally be a realistic alternative to the impossible idea of ‘brain transplant.’ The use of stem cells has now been shown to be safe and even to improve function in recovering stroke patients. 

Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cells are cells in the body that have not yet differentiated. Cell differentiation is the process by which a human cell becomes distinguished as a specific type of cell - for example, a skin cell, or a heart muscle cell, or a bone cell, or a neuron in the brain.

Once a cell differentiates, it does not spontaneously ‘un-differentiate’ or become another type of body cell. Stem cell research has historically been controversial because stem cells can be obtained from a healthy human embryo. This means that an embryo (a fertilized egg) could be produced in a lab, and then used for research and potentially for therapy.

Because an embryo has the potential to become a human being, this type of stem cell, called an embryonic stem cell, carries with it a great deal of ethical and moral deliberation.

More recently, scientific techniques have developed the ability to obtain stem cells through other methods that are not controversial. Stem cells are found in umbilical cord blood. Therefore, stem cells can be safely acquired after the birth of a baby without causing any harm to the baby or the mother. Stem cells are also present in the bone marrow of children and adults. Recently, stem cells have been found in several types of tissue in the body, including fat, muscle, and skin. The process of gathering adult stem cells is very new, but it is believed to be safe and can ultimately allow for autologous transplantation. Autologous transplantation is the transplantation of a tissue from one location in a person’s body to another location in the same person’s body. Autologous transplantation is generally more effective and successful than tissue transplantation from one person to another person.

Stem Cell Therapy for Stroke Patients

Brand new research has shown that patients who have experienced severe strokes can tolerate stem cell transplantation. A study out of London, published in the August 2014 issue of the journal, “Stem Cells Translational Medicine,” describes patients who received stem cells for stroke therapy. The patients had suffered from severe strokes according to the NINDS stroke scale. They received stem cells collected from their own bone marrow. The stem cells were injected into one of the arteries of the brain- the middle cerebral artery. The patients tolerated the procedure and did not experience side effects. At the 6 month follow-up, each of the patients showed reduction of clinical stroke symptoms and the sizes of their strokes were reduced. This research study was the first of its kind, and only 5 patients received treatment. However, this research shows great promise in the future of stem cell therapy for stroke as a viable option for some patients.


Cindy T. J. van Velthoven, Fernando Gonzalez, Zinaida S. Vexler, and Donna M. Ferriero, Stem cells for neonatal stroke- the future is here, Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, July 2014

Banerjee S, Bentley P, Hamady M, Marley S, Davis J, Shlebak A, Nicholls J, Williamson DA, Jensen SL, Gordon M, Habib N, Chataway J, Intra-Arterial Immunoselected CD34+ Stem Cells for Acute Ischemic Stroke, Stem Cells Translational Medicine, August 2014

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