Stem Cell Therapy Can Potentially Treat Spina Bifida Symptoms

Stem Cell Therapy Can Potentially Treat Spina Bifida Symptoms

Spina bifida is a common and devastating congenital disability where the tubing that normally encloses the spinal cord and nerves does not form properly, leaving it exposed. There are no known cures for this condition, but it can be managed throughout a person’s life. Stem cell therapy is being explored as a potential way to regrow the open portions of the neural tube, enclosing the spinal cord.


What is Spina Bifida?


Spina bifida is a congenital disability that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly during fetal development. It falls under the broader category of neural tube defects. The neural tube is the embryonic structure that eventually develops into the baby’s brain and spinal cord, and the tissues that enclose them. Typically, the neural tube forms early in pregnancy, and it closes by the 28th day after conception. In babies with spina bifida, a portion of the neural tube fails to develop or close properly, causing defects in the spinal cord and the vertebra of the spine.


Spina bifida can range from mild to severe, depending on the type of defect, size, location, and after birth complications. When early treatment for spina bifida is necessary, it’s done surgically in utero, although such measure doesn’t always completely resolve the problem. Spina bifida can occur in several different forms called spina bifida occulta, meningocele, or myelomeningocele. Spina bifida occulta means hidden spina bifida. It is considered the mildest form and results in a small separation in one or more of the vertebrae. Many people who have spina bifida occulta don’t know it unless the condition is discovered during an imaging test done for unrelated reasons.


Meningocele is a form of spina bifida where the protective membranes around the spinal cord, called the meninges, push out through the opening in the vertebrae forming a sac filled with fluid. But this sac doesn’t include the spinal cord, so nerve damage is less likely, though later complications are possible. Myelomeningocele, also known as open spina bifida, is the most severe form of this condition. The spinal canal is open along several vertebrae in the lower or middle back. The membranes and spinal nerves push through this opening at birth, forming a sac on the baby’s back, typically exposing tissues and nerves.

This makes the baby prone to life-threatening infections because it is outside the body. Typically, meningocele and myelomeningocele are diagnosed before or right after birth, when medical care is available. The children with these more severe forms of spina bifida should be monitored by a specialized team of doctors throughout their lives. Families should also be educated on the different complications to watch for. Taking folic acid supplements at least one month before conception, and continuing through the first trimester of pregnancy, greatly reduces the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects in children.


How Can Stem Cell Therapy Potentially Treat Spina Bifida?


The current standard of care for spina bifida is in utero surgical repair of the defect, which has been shown to minimize the secondary deficits associated with this disorder. Despite the successes of this surgery, this approach does not fully improve the neurologic function of affected children. Several research groups have performed studies aimed at fixing the in utero surgical repair of spina bifida by applying principles of stem cell and tissue regeneration to provide a better protective tube for the exposed neural elements.

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