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Stem cell trials aim to reverse ischemic strokes

March 13, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Surviving a stroke is just the beginning. Many are left fighting to regain complete motor function for the rest of their lives. Local doctors are studying how to reverse strokes with stem cells.

Valisa Blanton, a single mom, has been a hairdresser for 20 years, but that all changed last spring.

"I couldn't talk, was like 'Ra-ra-ra -- I was like, 'Oh my God, what's happening to me? I'm having a stroke,'" said Blanton

Blanton lost some motor function in the right side of her body. Two-million brain cells die every minute during a stroke. Doctors use clot-busting drugs to help prevent that from happening.

"We've been very limited in terms of fixing a stroke after it's happened. Really all we have is physical therapy," said Dr. George Rappard, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

Blanton had a stroke in July 2011. She went to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where she became one of the first patients to enroll in a first-of-its-kind stem cell study with neurosurgeon Dr. Rappard. He's using a patient's own stem cells to restore function.

"They are a population of cells that you have in your body that retain the ability to turn into other things," said Rappard.

Doctors think the stem cells might act as instructive cells, telling the brain how to heal.

"We take the stem cells that your body would normally use to make red blood cells and we separate those stem cells out from the bone marrow," said Rappard.

Doctors then inject them into the affected side of the brain through the groin. In mice, there was a 40 percent improvement in motor skills.

"I think potentially one of the most exciting things in my field ever," said Rappard.

Since July, Blanton feels like she's made a huge recovery.

"I feel like my brain is like 'Whoa!'" said Blanton.

Blanton is part of the double-blind human study. While she doesn't know if she received the stem cells or not, it has given her hope toward a full recovery.

The Phase One trial involved 10 patients. Doctors hope to enroll at least 100 for Phase Two. Only patients with ischemic strokes, the type where blood flow to the brain is blocked, will be eligible to participate in the clinical trial.