Recent developments in the area of stem cells suggest that it may be possible to treat stroke and restore lost brain functions. A research group within the StemTherapy program in Lund has taken an important step forward and presented positive results.
“The research is still at an early stage, but with increased knowledge of the mechanisms of improvements and potential risks linked to the transplantation of stem cells in the brain, we have come a long way towards a potential therapy that can actually restore damaged brain tissue and regain functionality”, says Professor Zaal Kokaia from Lund University.
He is one of the world’s foremost experts in the area and has over 20 years been studying brain functionality with specific focus on stroke. Professor Kokaia manages the research group focusing on stem cells together with Professor and clinical neurologist Olle Lindvall.
Revolutionising the view of cell replacement
Kokaia’s and Lindvall’s research seemingly challenges all previous knowledge in the field. However, the research is largely based on the same principles that were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012, the discovery that mature cells, e. g., skin cells, can be reprogrammed to stem cells, which in turn can be developed into specialized cells such as neurons. This has revolutionised the general view of cell development.
“By replacing damaged cells with healthy stem cells, preferably generated from the patient’s own tissue, it is possible to restore lost brain functions. This has already been shown in animal models, and we know also from previous studies that neurons can survive the transplantation procedure and regenerate in the new environment”, Zaal Kokaia explains.
An actual treatment may be around the corner, but it may also be ten years away. This is the main challenge with any curiosity-driven research. The brain, being our most complex organ does not lessen the challenge.
Improving quality of life for millions of people
Stroke is one of the leading causes of death and the leading cause of disability in the world today. Effective treatments to promote functional recovery after stroke are lacking. The results generated in Lund may well lead to successful treatments, not only relieving patient suffering but also easing the economic strain on the health care system. The main challenge now is to translate the basic research findings into clinical practice.
“Transplanting stem cells into stroke-injured brain and getting them to integrate and function in an optimal way are important but difficult tasks. However, we believe that we have the ideas and knowledge how to reach better therapies. Our long-term goal is to use this knowledge which could well improve quality of life for large numbers of patients globally”, says Zaal Kokaia, who essentially lives and breathes research, with an adamant drive to understand the human brain.
Professor Kokaia is coordinating the strategic StemTherapy program as well as the European Union consortium TargetBraIn, gathering researchers from all over the world in order to understand the importance of neuroinflammation for successful stem cell therapy in neurodegenerative diseases.