Cerebral Palsy (CP) is an umbrella term that is used to describe the effects of damage to a developing brain. It is the most common childhood disability in South Africa, affecting about 2 in every 1 000 live births. It is not a disease and while no cure has yet been discovered, can stem cell therapy help?

Stem cell therapy has been a topic of hot debate over the last decade, but what is it and how can it be used to assist people with CP? Stem cells are biological cells found in all organisms. They can divide into many specialised cell types and can self-renew to produce more stem cells. There are many sources of stem cells, such as an embryo, amniotic fluid, skin, muscle, bone and blood.

Research into stem cell therapy for CP is still ongoing, and while there is no current treatment available, some research has shown promising results. One example is with neural (nerve) stem cells which have been injected into the brains of mice, and the mice have shown some improvements. However, what happens to animals in a laboratory is not an exact match for what occurs in a human patient, and so more extensive tests need to be conducted before this type of cell can be used for the treatment of CP.

A phenomenon known as “stem cell tourism” has developed, where centres in Germany, China, India and Central America are advertising stem cell treatments, and claiming improvements in children with CP, using case studies as examples. This is not solid scientific evidence, and issues with efficacy and safety still have to be resolved. Some ethical issues have also been raised in certain clinical trials as serious side effects, including the development of tumours, have been reported.

At this point in time, cell-based therapy cannot be recommended as a clinical treatment for CP or intellectual disability. Parents of children with CP are advised to make use of conventional therapies such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy for improvement or maintenance of their child’s function. It is also recommended that parents keep up to date with scientific research in this field.

If you are interested in obtaining a fact sheet on stem cell therapy in CP, you can send an email to faithbischof@gmail.com.

Professor Faith Bischof is a consulting physiotherapist to Sunshine Association, and she is also the Chairperson of the National Association for Persons with Cerebral Palsy (NAPCP).

The Sunshine Centre Association provides help to children with developmental delays, and intellectual or physical disabilities. For more information on CP, and to find out how you can make a contribution, please contact 011 642 2005.