Umbilical cord stem cells as a potential treatment for autism

Many scientific studies are underway to find a possible cure for autism: the use of umbilical cord stem cells aims to "rewrite" the physiological processes that cause the disease

Autism – or Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – affects about 1-2% of the population, it is a neurological development disorder characterized by dysfunction in communication and social interaction, behavioural repetitiveness, limitation of interests and activities.

Since the causes leading to this disease are not yet clear, to date it is treated mainly through nutritional and behavioural plans, as well as by drugs. These treatments focus primarily on improving or encouraging behavioural attitudes.

However, some physiological conditions seem to correlate autism with an alteration of the central nervous system (CNS) and a deficit of the immune system. The normal function of the CNS is altered by an oxygen deficiency (hypoxia) caused by a defective blood perfusion, while the dysfunction of the immune system causes localized inflammations.

These two physiological conditions are the subject of a number of scientific studies aimed at using cell therapy in order to find a possible treatment for autism. In particular, many studies investigate the potential of umbilical cord blood and tissue stem cells in the treatment of hypoxia and inflammation. The use of stem cells in autism therapy aims to “rewrite” the physiological processes that cause the disease, especially thanks to their properties of repair and regeneration of malfunctioning mechanisms.

Several studies state that, thanks to their regenerative capacity, cord blood stem cells are able to release growth factors that induce the generation of new blood vessels, as well as contributing to neuro-regeneration, in order to cope with the insufficiency of blood perfusion and oxygen.

As for the malfunction of the immune system and consequent inflammation, thanks to their ability to migrate to the defective areas of the system and their immunosuppressive activity, the umbilical cord stem cells inhibit inflammatory proteins. In this way, they reduce the level of inflammation and, consequently, improve the neurological conditions of patients.

The scientific community is more and more sensitive to this issue and there are many clinical trials, completed or in progress, which aim to validate the safety and effectiveness of cell therapy using umbilical cord stem cells. Among them, the clinical study conducted by Dr Joanne Kurtzberg, of the Duke University Medical Center, which aims to assess the power of autologous (self-derived) and allogeneic (donor-derived) stem cells to improve symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorders. The Duke University team is now completing Phase II of the clinical trial – which began after the positive results obtained in the first phase – and Dr Kurtzberg is convinced that «cell therapy is, at least at a preliminary stage, looking like it’s really going to make a difference in the disease».