Vietnam hospital successfully treats paralysis with stem cells

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Doctors operate on a patient with broken spine in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Thanh Tung

A leading Hanoi hospital, which is also Vietnam's major surgical center, has achieved early success in using stem cells to treat paralysis caused by spinal injuries.

Nguyen Van Thach, head of the spinal cord surgery department at the Vietnam-Germany Friendship Hospital, said the treatment uses adipose-derived stem cells to stimulate the recovery of damaged marrow.

Thach is heading research in the new treatment that started in March, and his team will work with 38 volunteers.

He said the results have been positive on more than 10 of the patients, who can now control their urination and defecation, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported recently.

The first patient, a 29-year-old man involved in a motorbike accident, was admitted without mobility in the legs and control over his bladder, bowel, and sphincter.

X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed his spine had broken around the chest area and shifted from its normal position, and the bone marrow was damaged and inflamed in many places.

Doctors performed an operation to straighten his spine before stem cells extracted from his body were injected into the injured part.

"He began to have sensation in the spinal cord on the third day after the procedure and was sent for rehabilitation," Thach said.

The hospital received another victim of a motorbike accident in March, a 31-year-old man with similar problems, only his spine was damaged in the neck.

He also began to get back physical sensation after three days and then received physical therapy.

Doctors explained that stem cells from adipose tissue - used by the body to store fat - in the patient's abdomen is extracted and cultured before transplanted into the body to help the spinal marrow recover.

The stem cells stimulate the formation of new blood and nerve cells.

For each patient, 200 milliliters of adipose tissues are extracted, condensed to 40 milliliters, and multiplied to eight million mononuclear cells in three weeks in the laboratory.

Around 5 percent of the stem cells is injected into the injured part. 

Thach said he knew about a paralyzed patient in Thailand who received the same treatment and could now walk with aid.

Thailand has not reported about the case yet but the result offers great hope for other patients, he said.

Nguyen Tien Quyet, director of the hospital, which has a history of pioneering surgical techniques in Vietnam, admitted the treatment is only effective on people hospitalized immediately.

It cannot cure those who have been paralyzed for months or years, he said.

The hospital receives 800-900 people with spinal injuries each year, including around 200 for whom the spinal marrow is damaged due to broken vertebrae.

Once the latter occurs, victims are relegated to vegetative lives, he said.

The hospital has operated on more than 2,000 patients with damaged marrow, only managing to save their lives but leaving them spending the rest of their lives in wheel chairs or beds, he said.

Quyet said the new treatment is expected to take between four to five weeks and cost around US$5,000-7,000, but the volunteers would be treated for free or at discounted rates.

"The advantage of this procedure is that patients use their own fatty tissues and do not have to take anti-rejection drugs."

A study by the hospital found that most victims of spinal injuries in Vietnam are aged between 35 and 40 and usually their families' breadwinners.

Thus, their incapacitation is not only traumatic for themselves but also for their families, and the new treatment can help them return to normal life, it said.

The hospital's Dr. Duong Dinh Toan said though the new treatment cannot totally restore a victim's mobility, it can "significantly improve" the quality of their life.

While the technique is only in a trial stage in Vietnam, it has proved to be a successful cure overseas, where people can move their arms and legs, sit up, and walk on their own feet with support, he told Tuoi Tre newspaper.

"I think that's a miracle."

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