Dr. James Baumgartner, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Florida Hospital, is trying to see if the stem cells in cord blood can help babies who have a stroke around the time of birth.
This type of stroke — called perinatal stroke — occurs in 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 3,000 babies, according to estimates. These babies usually develop cerebral palsy, have trouble with cognition, walking, bladder function, and many have epilepsy that’s difficult to treat.
“What I’m curious about is can the nervous system be repaired or repair itself with cellular therapy,” said Baumgartner, surgical director of Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Florida Hospital for Children.
The small study is still at very early stages and it’s challenging, because not all strokes are the same. The Florida Hospital for Children team is working with Cord Blood Registry to identify willing families whose children have had perinatal stroke.
If they qualify, the families come to the hospital for an overnight treatment and for several follow-up visits.
Researchers’ goal at this time is to see if cord blood infusion (cellular therapy) is safe and if it helps with the kids’ hand movement, improves their bladder function and reduces the number of their seizures.
“Also, we’re going to use pretty sophisticated neuroimaging to see if we have altered the trajectory of brain damage, with a simple thought that if you preserve more brain, the patient ought to do better,” Baumgartner said.
Studies suggest that after an injury such as stroke, the body’s immune system is activated and it may be suppressing the nervous system’s repair machinery.
Meanwhile, early research suggests that infusion of cord-blood stem cells via a simple IV dials down that immune response, potentially allowing the nerve cells that aren’t completely injured to get repaired.
“I was taught you’re born with every nerve cell you’ll ever have, and repair is impossible. It’s clearly not true. So that’s what we’re playing around with: the brain repair/regeneration and the interaction of immune system and the nervous system,” he said.
Baumgartner’s area of research, which focuses on therapy with human cells instead of using drugs, is a growing area of research.
In another small study, Baumgartner and colleagues showed that bone marrow stem cells can reduce the intensity of severe traumatic brain injury in children.
He’s also conducting another study to see if cord-blood stem cells can help repair certain kinds of hearing loss in children. That study has not been published yet, but “everyone thinks we’re moving in a good direction,” Baumgartner said.