Stem cell expert: Bart Starr treatment shows need for …

Posted by admin
Jun 19 2015

The news that legendary Green Bay Packer quarterback Bart Starr has undergone stem cell therapy to recover from a stroke has raised the profile for a promising but unproven regenerative treatment intended to replace dead neurons with live ones.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Su-Chun Zhang was the first scientist to isolate neural stem cells from embryonic stem cells and then from other types of all-purpose stem cells. He says medical researchers and the federal government have a responsibility to forge ahead with clinical trials to prove whether and how these flexible cells can replace damaged or dead neural cells caused by spinal cord injury, stroke and Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).

Su-Chun Zhang

"We have no effective treatment for stroke," says Zhang, a medical doctor and Ph.D. researcher at the UW's Waisman Center. "After a couple of hours, the cells are dead if they don't have a blood supply. And the brain has a very limited capacity to regenerate, particularly in older patients."

Embryonic stem cells the cells that give rise to all body tissues were first cultured by James Thomson at UW-Madison in 1998. Just three years later in 2001 Zhang discovered how to grow neural cells from embryonic stem cells.

Since then, he has been instrumental in differentiating these neural cells into neurons, which carry nerve signals, and glial cells, which keep neurons healthy. UW-Madison currently has more than 90 faculty working on the basic science and regenerative potential of stem cells. UW scientists publish more than 500 research articles each year on stem cells.

Zhang expressed hope that Starr will recover, but says there are plenty of question marks, such as what type of cells were used, and how they were inserted into the body.

In a statement Wednesday, Starr's family announced he was participating in a stem-cell trial but gave no details of how or where he was being treated. Published reports have said that the family received information about stem-cell treatment in Tijuana, Mexico, undergone by hockey Hall-of-Famer Gordie Howe.

The Food and Drug Administration has been more conservative than some foreign regulators, Zhang says, but science has advanced to the point where human trials are justified, especially for untreatable conditions.

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