Chris Woods lay in a bed Friday at Medical College of Georgia Hospital after a massive stroke made his left arm useless. But don’t tell him that.
“I can move it,” he said defiantly, though the arm didn’t move. “I can hit pretty hard with it.”
Something the 45-year-old construction worker from Tignall received hours before could help him do that.
Woods is the second patient in a clinical trial at Georgia Health Sciences University testing whether stem cells derived from bone marrow could help patients recover from a severe stroke.
Dr. David Hess, the chairman of GHSU’s Department of Neurology, has been working with the company Athersys to help develop and test the cells, which are derived from healthy donors, tested and packaged so they can be stored in most hospital settings and given without the need to match blood type. Unlike embryonic stem cells, the cells have a very low risk of spawning a tumor, and so far they shown few side effects, Hess said.
Unlike other studies that have looked at taking stem cells from stroke patients, growing them and giving them back, a laborious and expensive prospect that takes time, the MultiStem cells are ready to go.
Stroke patients tend to be older and their stem cells might not be as effective as the ones taken from the younger donors Athersys uses, Hess said.
Starting first in mice and rats, the researchers have been able to show a functional benefit from giving the cells. Now there is a clinical trial to see whether the stem cells can provide a benefit in patients who haven’t seen much progress in a day or so after the stroke.
How the cells help is in question. Researchers originally thought the cells, given through an IV, would travel to the site of injury in the brain and form new neurons and blood vessels, which turned out to be “naive,” Hess said.
Instead, the cells appear to migrate to other organs that are involved in forming immune system cells, such as the spleen. What the stem cells might be doing is dampening that immune response, which causes inflammation in the brain and the release of toxic materials that further the damage, Hess said.
“The immune system plays a deleterious role” in stroke, Hess said, so quieting the immune system should aid in recovery.
His eyes barely open, Woods nodded when asked whether he is feeling better. His older brother, Luther Bradley, said he is seeing signs of improvement, although there is a chance Woods got a placebo.
“He’s been trying to get up out of the bed,” Bradley said. “Today he’s been real motivated. Hopefully that is a good sign.”