Groundbreaking stem cell brain implant helps fight epilepsy in rats

Severe epilepsy is very difficult to treat, but an experimental approach involving implanted stem cells in the brain represents a groundbreaking way to potentially stop seizures for good.

Carried out by researchers at Texas A&M University, the technique has yet to be tried on human subjects, but has proven highly successful on rats. Rats given the implants suffered 70 percent fewer seizures than those without. That figure could drop further with additional research.

The investigation is the first study of its kind. It demonstrated that grafting certain cells derived from human-induced pluripotent stem cells into the brain can help alleviate seizures, as well as improve brain function. The work targets temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), the most common type of epilepsy in which seizures originate from the brain’s hippocampus. TLE is a non-genetic form of epilepsy, often resulting from an incident such as a traumatic head injury, brain infections, or fever-related seizures during childhood.

Around 40 percent of TLE cases are drug-resistant and one of the only available medical interventions is a type of surgery to remove the hippocampus entirely. Unfortunately, this approach can lead to both memory and mood impairments. That would not be necessary with the newly demonstrated approach.

As noted, right now this experimental approach has only been tested on rats. However, the researchers believe its findings could be applied to human subjects.

“For patient-specific cell therapy, one can take a skin biopsy or blood sample from a patient, convert patient’s skin fibroblasts or mononuclear blood cells into [induced pluripotent stem cells], then obtain GABA-ergic progenitors from [induced pluripotent stem cells] and transplant them into the epileptic foci in the brain of the patient,” Ashok Shetty, Professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine, told Digital Trends. “Such an approach is particularly attractive for people with drug-resistant epilepsy for long-term seizure control, and improving cognitive and mood function.

Moving forward, Shetty said that the long-term safety aspects of the treatment need to be examined. While this research is still a way off from being made available to human patients, it nonetheless represents an exciting step forward.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal PNAS.

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