Stem Cell Research Renews Hope for Spinal Injury Patients
Patients with spinal cord and disc injuries could receive a cure in less than ten years thanks to groundbreaking research that is underway at the University of Toronto. Dr. Mark Erwin, Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation (CCRF) Professor in disc biology leads a team of researchers who are on a mission to unlock the regenerative properties of human intervertebral disc stem cells. The evidence to date already shows promising signs for the future treatment of degenerative disc disease and spinal cord injuries.
In an effort to better understand these debilitating and painful conditions, Erwin established a multi-disciplinary disc biology research group that brings neurosurgery, rheumatology and cellular and molecular biology disciplines together. The team isolated notochordal and adult stem cells within the intervertebral disc that thrive in low oxygen conditions. Stem cells have the ability to regenerate and become specialized cell types such as muscle and tissue cells. Preliminary study by the team saw stem cells differentiating into nerve cells. The regeneration of degenerated vertebral discs was also noted, something that was thought to be impossible.
If successful in humans, the cure for spinal cord injuries and disc degeneration could mean a simple clinical procedure. The thinking is that a patient’s own stem cells would be extracted, assigned for a certain purpose such as regeneration of nerves or discs and then introduced back into the body where repair is required. Science is getting closer, with the potential for available therapies in less than ten years.
This research strongly points to a cure of the underlying cause of these conditions, putting an end to treating symptoms and managing pain. Quality of life for patients has the potential to significantly improve with increased function, less pain and in extreme cases, the ability to walk again.
Erwin, a Doctor of Chiropractor since 1984, witnesses the impact these conditions have on his patients at his private practice and through the Spine Clinic at Toronto Western Hospital on a weekly basis. He is a professor in the Department of Surgery, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Toronto and Toronto Western Hospital. In 2004 he obtained his PhD from the University of Toronto and has since published several research papers that have garnered significant awards from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Canadian Arthritis Network and AO-Spine North America.
Through his research, Erwin provides renewed hope for patients who have impaired function because of spine injuries or degenerative changes. In the future, a wheelchair may only serve as temporary for those living with spinal cord injuries.