Even with the option of transplanting cells derived from embryonic stem cells now under investigation for safety, the treatment horizon for people who are paralyzed has been bleak. Some patients are reluctant to consider stem-cell based transplantation to treat their paralysis because of the possible risks. Paralysis often prevents people from breathing and voiding urine normally, making them more susceptible to respiratory and urinary infections and thereby increasing the need to rely on antibiotics. "I would be concerned about immune suppression," says Jean-Guy Niquet, of Montreal, who has been paralyzed for 28 years. "UTI's (urinary tract infections) can be life-threatening for us." No immunosuppressive drugs would be required for Schwann cell transplants, because the cells are from the patient's own body.
At this point, human studies are needed to answer the question of safety of both Schwann cell and embryonic stem cell-derived transplants into the spinal cord before undertaking studies of efficacy. Joseph Gold, senior director of neurobiology and cell therapies at Geron, and Richard Garr, CEO and director of Neuralstem, Inc, each using different types of embryonic stem cell-based therapies for spinal cord transplantation, reported at the same meeting that results thus far show that immunological suppression can be managed without any complications. The approaches of both companies are very effective in laboratory animals, and the use of embryonic stem cells for curing disease is becoming more widely accepted on ethical grounds.
Other researchers and patients at the meeting expressed frustration that it has taken so long to begin studies using the Schwann cell transplantation approach in humans, because the technique is backed by years of research on experimental animals showing that it is effective in restoring sensory and motor function.