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Stem Cell Research May Help ALS Patients, Study Shows Promise But Has Yet to Confirm Benefits

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Scientists find that stem cell therapy seems safe for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). However, it remains unclear if the said treatment can provide positive benefits to patients.

Findings from the preliminary study showed that majority of the 15 ALS patients were able to endure the large doses of stem cells administered via spinal injections. However, in the study, two ALS patients suffered from serious side effects.

"This is a baby step forward. We can say this procedure is doable in ALS patients. Now we have to test whether it's actually therapeutic," said Emory University's Dr. Jonathan Glass, the study's lead researcher.

In earlier studies, the research team injected stem cells into test mice's spinal cords engineered to have ALS. They found that the stem cell therapy slowed down the disease and increased survival rates.

In a second study that involved 12 ALS patients, the same team tested if the stem cells can be safely injected in human participants' spinal cords. They found that none of the patients suffered any enduring effects either from stem cells implantation or surgical procedure. Findings showed that none of the patients showed uncommon disease acceleration.

In the recent study, the team tested the same method but with increased quantities of stem cells. The National Institutes of Health-funded research involved 15 ALS patients who were not part of the previous study.

"We put them into the spinal cord, and they came from a human spinal cord. The idea was that they would find a familiar and supportive environment," added Glass.

ALS researcher and neurologist Dr. Ericka Simpson from Texas-based Houston Methodist said the study findings offer ALS patients with "significant hope." Simpson added that the fact the researchers were able to inject large quantities of stem cells in the patients' spinal cords was "groundbreaking." Simpson was not involved in the research.

However, Simpson stressed that there are many major questions that need to be answered. This includes whether the therapy can stay safe for patients in the long run. Stem cells develop into mature cells. But these primitive cells also carry the potential for uncontrolled growths.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Registry, it is estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS. Annually, doctors hand approximately 5,000 people with an ALS diagnosis.

In terms of gender, statistics showed that ALS is slightly more common among men. The majority of people diagnosed with ALS are between the ages of 55 and 75. ALS patients normally live two to five years following the symptoms' manifestation.

ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a condition that affects the body's nerve cells responsible for making the muscles work in both upper and lower body. ALS first makes the affected nerve cells stop working and then, they eventually die. Without the ability to make specific muscles work, the disease causes the muscles to weaken and even lead to paralysis.

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