Motor Neuron Disease | Stem Cells Australia
Motor Neuron Disease
Motor Neuron Disease (MND) is the name given to a group of conditions that cause damage to nerve cells in the body. These nerve cells control all the muscles in our body that help us to walk, run, speak, and breathe. These nerve cells are also known as ‘motor neurons’ and they send messages from the brain and spinal cord to our muscles that tells them when, and how, to start working. In MND, these messages slowly stop reaching the muscles, leading to muscle weakness, and eventually muscle death.
Currently there is no cure for MND, so most treatments focus on relieving symptoms to improve the individuals’ quality of life; one licensed treatment has recently been shown to extend survival by a few months.
About 10% of all cases of MND are inherited from parents to children, but the cause of the rest of MND cases (90%) remains unknown.
How could stem cells help?
Scientific advances have led to enormous progress in MND research during the last decade, but so far, we know relatively little about how and why motor pathways degenerate in MND. At this point, no stem cell treatment has been found to be effective in the treatment of MND, however they are being used in various ways in research, such as:
Understanding the disease
Researchers are using stem cells to try and grow neurons and other cells in a dish, as a way to recreate, or ‘model’ MND. This process greatly helps researchers study and discover the causes of neuron damage and what might prevent it. This involves taking a sample from a patient and making stem cells in the lab. The stem cells can then be used to grow into the cells affected by MND.
Developing New Drugs
The use of stem cells allows researchers to rapidly test whether or not various drugs will be effective in treating MND. Researchers can test possible new drugs on cells made from a patient’s own stem cells. This allows the drugs to be ‘fast-tracked’ to later phases of clinical trials, which would theoretically let any effective drugs get to the market more quickly.
Stem Cells as Therapy
Stem cells are also being explored as treatments for individuals with MND. Stem cells may be able to help in many ways, for example: by regulating harmful immune responses, or even producing protective substances called ‘growth factors’ that help neurons survive and repair themselves. Although researchers can make new motor neurons in the lab, transplanting healthy replacement neurons is not straightforward. There are many questions to answer before cell therapies are routinely available for MND patients.
What are the challenges?
Currently, researchers don’t know very much about MND. It is a very complex condition, and it affects different people in a variety of ways. Not only this, but it also impacts many areas in the body. This variety and the wide-ranging nature of the condition makes it difficult for researchers to find treatments that can target all those different things at once.
Repairing the damage caused by MND is also difficult. Researchers are looking at how stem cells might help with repairing this damage by using them to grow new, healthy cells. But growing them is just the beginning. Once new cells are created, they also have to fit into the body’s networks of cells and start to function properly within them, which is a very difficult task with current stem cell science.
Where can I find out more about clinical trials?
Although some clinics may claim to offer stem cell treatments for MND, there are serious questions about the scientific rationale and the safety of these approaches. Currently, there are no proven, safe and effective stem cell treatment for this disease available in Australia, the EU, US or elsewhere. While some clinics may state they are conducting clinical trials, and even register them on clinicaltrials.gov, please note that the scientific justification for the intervention and the credentials of those offering the service may have NOT been fully evaluated.
Make sure you consult with your medical specialist or general practitioner as they are best placed to advise you on whether you would be a good candidate for a trial and other options that may be available for you given your circumstances.