Using stem cells to reverse the impact of stroke

Published On: Aug 08 2012 06:53:33 AM EDT

Stroke is the number three cause of death, but the leading cause of disability in the United States. For many victims of stroke, surviving it is just the beginning, with many left fighting to regain complete motor function for the rest of their lives.

Now doctors are looking at a way to reverse stroke effects after it happens.

Valisa Blanton knows a thing or two about beauty.

"I've been working with hair practically since I got out of high school! I love doing hair, I absolutely love it," said Blanton.

The single mom's been a hairdresser for 20 years, but that all changed last spring.

"I realized I couldn't move. I tried to talk and I couldn't talk was like ra ra ra… oh my god what's happening to me? I'm having a stroke," Blanton said.

She lost some motor function in the right side of her body.

"It breaks my heart," Blanton said.

Two million brain cells die every minute during a stroke. Doctors use clot busting drugs to help prevent that from happening, but Dr. George Rappard, a neurointerventional surgeon for the Los Angeles and Spine Institute at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, says after that, there's only a 15 to 20 percent chance of improvement.

"We've been very limited in fixing a stroke once it's happened. All we have is physical therapy where we train people to compensate for their disabilities, " explained Rappard.

Now, a first of its kind trial is testing the use of a stroke patient's own stem cells to restore function.

"They are a population of cells you retain in your body that have the ability to turn into other things," Rappard said.

Doctors think the stem cells might act as instructive cells, telling the brain how to heal.

"We take the stem cells that your body normally uses to make red blood cells and separate those stem cells out of the bone marrow," Rappard said.

Doctors then inject them into the affected side of the brain through the groin. In mice, there was a 40% improvement in motor skills.

"I think that's one of the most potentially exciting things in my field ever, and I have a very exciting field," Rappard said.

"I feel like my brain is like 'wow!'," Blanton said.

Blanton is part of the double blind human study. While she doesn't know if she received the stem cells or not, it's given her hope toward a full recovery.

"40 and fabulous honey!" she said.

The phase one trial involved 10 patients, but doctors were including at least 100 for phase two.