Over the last two years, it seems like the enormous promise of stem cells is starting to be realised. One of the most exciting therapies is the use of umbilical cord blood to treat brain injuries such as cerebral palsy. In fact, umbilical cord blood transfusion appears to be the first treatment that helps to repair the neurons of sufferers, rather than simply managing the symptoms. This has the potential to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is believed to be caused during pregnancy or when giving birth. Whilst the causes are complex and many, we do know Cerebral Palsy is caused by damage or lack of development in the part of the brain that controls movement. It is the most common disability amongst children and results in a range of symptoms relating to movement, co-ordination, balance and often cognitive impairment.
And is it widespread?
There are estimated to be approximately 17 million people globally suffering from cerebral palsy. Here in the UK it affects 1 in every 500 children with 1,800 children diagnosed with the condition every single year. This growth means is that there are an estimated 30,000 children sufferers in the UK currently and this looks set to increase.
The adult prognosis?
Most adult sufferers will actually have a fairly normal life expectancy but may face increased pain or worsening mobility as they get older. As a result sufferers require life-long access to healthcare and social services and experience reduced quality of life. It is estimated that the annual cost to the NHS alone is in excess of £4million per patient.
How can cord blood help cerebral palsy?
When umbilical cord blood is transfused intravenously into a patient suffering from brain injury, like cerebral palsy, it is thought that the CD14 cells present in cord blood cross over the blood brain-barrier, where they assist in the repair and regeneration of damaged neural connections, enabling the patient to experience some cognitive improvement and increased mobility.
Where is treatment available?
There are currently over 22 clinical trials underway that are looking at the use of umbilical stem cells for the treatment of cerebral palsy, producing some very promising results. These include a first-in-man trial in South Korea, which demonstrated improved cognitive and motor function in children suffering from cerebral palsy following cord blood transfusion.
The largest and most publicised trial in this area has taken place at Duke University in the United States under the leadership of Dr Joanne Kurtzberg. This double-blind, placebo controlled, phase II study demonstrated that, at the correct dose level, umbilical cord blood transfusion resulted in an improvement in the symptoms of cerebral palsy. This data was sufficiently compelling that the FDA has given Duke University permission to offer cord blood therapy to children with a range of neurological conditions, including, Autism, cerebral palsy, anoxia, and hypoxia. All patients require is access to their own or a matched sibling cord blood sample.
As further research continues and the results build on the successes already seen, hopefully we are not too far away from stem cell therapy being seen as standard of care for cerebral palsy.
I am a serial entrepreneur specialising in life sciences and chair two exceptional companies Cells4Life, the UK's largest cord blood stem cell bank, and Stabilitech Biopharma, developer of the world's first 15-strain influenza vaccine and the first platform that will allow any vaccine to be take orally.
I graduated from Imperial with a First Class Honours degree in mathematics and physics and joined IBM during the computing revolution in the 1980s. And 4 years later, at the age of 26, founded my first company which specialised in networking and communications products distribution. It grew to revenues of over $500m in 13 years, employing over 1,200 people operating in 9 European countries with a full listing on the London Stock Exchange. I have run several other companies including a high-speed firewall company based in California; founded one of Europe's largest network training companies; and developed one of the first LAN search engines.
By far, the most rewarding part of my career has been life sciences - it combines my love of science, bleeding edge technology, managing complicated companies and directly helping people achieve better outcomes in their health.
In my personal life, I am a very keen dressage rider and my move from technology to life sciences was because of an injury to one of my horses. I have ridden all my life and had a dream of making Team GB in dressage. I bought Kaspar when he was two years old - he was, and still is, a dream horse to ride and train. He was the first horse that I managed to train to Grand Prix and in 2003 he had a very common injury, he tore a suspensory ligament. Normally, this would mean the end for his competitive career. However, my vet suggested we try stem cells - which at the time was a very rare therapy. They worked brilliantly and he returned to a full and long competition career and he did make Team GB.
Astonishingly, whilst I could treat my horse with stem cells, these therapies were not available to the public. The first cord blood stem cell treatment was performed back in 1988 and were used to treat Fanconi anaemia, today they are being used for over 85 different conditions and are the only therapy for cerebral palsy and autism. Stem cells are the building blocks of regenerative medicine and are going to fundamentally change how we are able to treat most illnesses and injuries - everyone of us needs to know about them and have the opportunity to use them as therapies are developed.
The most powerful stem cells available are potentially those contained in umbilical cord blood. My mission is to promote regenerative medicine and help make it available to everyone.