Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS is a devastating, progressive neurological disease. While the precise cause is unknown, ALS does destroy nerve cells in the spinal cord, which causes several debilitating symptoms. Often the first symptom of ALS is weakness in the hands or arms that is usually more pronounced on one side of the body. As more spinal cord nerve cells become dysfunctional and die, patients with ALS become weaker, their movements grow slower, and their muscles begin to atrophy (i.e. break down). At the same time, some muscles in the limbs become spastic, which means they are constantly in a contracted state. In later stages of ALS, patients have difficulty swallowing and breathing. Mesenchymal Stem Cell Treatment for ALS is a unique and new option.

The only drug to have any known survival benefit in ALS is riluzole. Patients who take riluzole live longer than those who do not; however, the drug does not improve function or meaningfully reduce symptoms. The only other approved ALS treatment, edaravone, may slow the rate at which ALS gets worse. However, neither of these drugs is a cure—far from it, in fact. Indeed, doctors and patients are left with virtually no effective treatment options for ALS.

Because ALS is caused by the destruction of nerve cells in the spinal cord, the regenerative properties of stem cells may offer a solution. The hypothesis is that stem cells—and exosomes collected from stem cells—can help protect, preserve, or even regenerate cells that are affected by ALS.

A flurry of research has been published over the last decade documenting the safety and possible effectiveness of mesenchymal stem cells for the treatment of ALS. In 2009, Deda et al. showed bone marrow stem cells injected into the spinal area were safe in patients with ALS, even showing that some patients had improvements in neuromuscular testing. The research groups of Karussis, Mazzini, Blanquer, and Baek showed similar safety results. Martinez et al. showed that stem cells derived from bone marrow could improve survival in patients with ALS. Rushkevich et al. showed that stem cell infusion improved the quality of life in patients with ALS.

While more work is clearly needed to determine the full effectiveness of stem cell treatment for ALS, the number of researchers working on this topic and the number of successful studies published in this area are reasons for hope. These clinical studies show that stem cell treatment for ALS is clearly safe and feasible. What is needed are larger clinical trials that specifically focus on the effectiveness of treatment, both in the near- and long-term.

Reference: Roberta Bonafede and Raffaella Mariotti. (2017). Stem cell mobilizers: ALS Pathogenesis and Therapeutic Approaches: The Role of Mesenchymal Stem Cells and Extracellular Vesicles. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience. 2017; 11:80.

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