World's First Stem Cell Clinical Trial to Treat Stroke Begins in U.K.

The world's first clinical trial of stem cells to treat stroke patients has begun in Glasgow, Scotland. External experts said the trial was grounds for "cautious optimism," Reuters reported.

Doctors in Scotland, working with British biotech company ReNeuron, administered a series of injections in a patient over the weekend to test whether stem cell therapy could help those disabled by stroke. The patient, who is in his 60s, was severely disabled by a stroke 18 months ago and requires continuous care.

Doctors injected low doses of ReNeuron's neural stem cells into a healthy region of the patient's brain, close to where neurons were damaged by the stroke. They hope the injected cells will release chemicals that stimulate new brain cells and blood vessels to grow, while healing scar tissue and reducing inflammation, The Guardian reported.

Doctors said the surgery procedure was successful and that the patient is doing well and has already been discharged from the hospital. If the patient continues to do well over the next few weeks, 11 more men who have been disabled by ischemic stroke -- the most common type, caused by a blockage of blood flow in the brain -- will be treated in the coming year with progressively higher doses.

The primary goal of this early study is safety. The doctors want to ensure that the treatment is not making patients any worse, but they will also be monitoring patients closely for improvements and to see whether the stem cells are repairing any areas damaged by the stroke, as was the case in animal studies of the treatment.

This clinical trial comes a few weeks after U.S. company Geron (GERN) began a clinical trial in patients with spinal cord injuries. But while Geron's stem cells are derived from embryos, ReNeuron's are derived from fetuses, which do not have the same flexibility to turn into different tissue types as embryonic cells.

Stem-cell technology is viewed as a highly promising new area of medical science, but it is also highly controversial because of the source of the cells. Although, some stem cells can be derived from adult cells.

Stroke is the the third leading cause of death in the U.S., killing 137,000 people in the U.S. 2006. It is also a leading cause of serious, long-term disability. About 6.4 million stroke survivors are alive today in the U.S. In 2009, strokes were estimated to cost the U.S. $68.9 billion, including health care services, medications, and missed days of work.

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