Drew Kijek, an 11-year-old boy from Shelby Township, is one of the first children in the world to receive stem cell therapy to treat his cerebral palsy. This is a groundbreaking FDA trial in which stem cells that his parents banked at birth will be administered to Drew to help repair and regenerate the parts of his brain that are causing the cerebral palsy. Researchers hope that this treatment will allow him to regain motor skills and increase neurological function.
Cerebral palsy, caused by a brain injury or brain oxygen deprivation (hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy) around birth, can impair movement, learning, hearing, vision and cognitive skills. Two to three children in 1,000 are affected by it, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
As Drew’s parents explain, Drew’s brain and muscles don’t work together, and he is unable to complete certain activities because he lacks the motor coordination. Sometimes Drew gets frustrated when he cannot express his wants and needs.
Cerebral Palsy Stem Cell Trial at the Medical College of Georgia
The first-ever FDA trial for stem cell therapies for cerebral palsy is happening over the next few months at the Medical College of Georgia. The trial does not involve any lengthy surgery, and Drew’s physicians have great expectations. Drew’s mother told the press that she did some research and came across a case where a child had cerebral palsy so severe he was unable to speak. With stem cell treatment, the boy’s function improved.
Eleven years ago, when the Kijeks first heard of saving umbilical cord blood, stem cell therapy seemed like science fiction. But now they are hoping the FDA trial will help increase awareness about banking stem cells, as well as funding for this research. The Kijeks believe that since Drew was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after birth, cord blood could unlock an optimistic future for Drew.
The FDA study at the Medical College of Georgia will include 40 children, ages 2 – 12, whose parents have stored cord blood at the Cord Blood Registry in Arizona. Umbilical cord blood is rich in stem cells, which can divide and morph into different types of cells throughout the body.
Stem Cells Replace Damaged Brain Cells in Animal Studies
Animal studies indicate that infused stem cells help injured brain cells recover and can replace dead brain cells. Dr. Carroll, one of the study’s researchers, states: “Autologous stem cell transplantation, in which the transplant recipient is also the donor, is the safest form of stem cell transplantation because it carries virtually no threat of immune system rejection.”
While no controlled clinical trials have been conducted to date, previous studies have shown marked improvement in children with cerebral palsy at approximately three months after an initial infusion of cord blood. “Evidence up to this point has been purely anecdotal,” Dr. Carroll said. “While a variety of cord blood stem cell therapies have been used successfully for more than 20 years, this study is breaking new ground in advancing therapies for brain injury — a condition for which there is currently no cure.”
Children will begin the study with a neurological exam by Medical College of Georgia pediatric neurologists. Then, half of the study participants will receive an infusion of their own cord blood while the other half receive a placebo. Three months later, the children will be evaluated without physicians knowing which group received the stem cell infusion. Afterward, children who didn’t get the cord blood initially will receive an infusion. Children will return three and six months later for evaluation. Researchers will periodically assess the children’s motor skills and neurological development.
“For the purposes of this study, we’re not looking at stem cells as a possible cure; rather whether stem cells can help change the course of these types of brain injuries in children,” Dr. Carroll said.