Families choosing to bank their stem cells – usually in the form of cord blood and/or dental pulp stem cells, typically view their decision as “biological insurance.” A Phase II clinical trial is investigating the safety and efficacy of autologous [the patient’s own] cord blood stem cells to treat children with behavioral and social difficulties associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In a clear demonstration of the value of banking your own stem cells, only families that chose to bank their children’s cord blood were qualified to participate in the study.
Dr. Patricia Braga and her team at the University of Sao Paolo, in collaboration with Alysson Muotri, professor of pediatrics and cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego, are using dental stem cells from donated baby teeth to grow neurons and examine the role of astrocytes in the expression of Autistic traits such as language impairment, repetitive behaviors and sleeping difficulties. Dr. Braga has used dental pulp stem cells from two groups of patients - children with Autism and a non-autistic control group, and directed their stem cells to differentiate into brain cells in vitro. When allowed to grow, the stem cells developed into clusters that contained the star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes, as well as fully grown neurons. Upon closer inspection, the astrocytes and neurons from children with Autism showed significant functional differences compared to the control group cells. Autistic astrocytes release excessive amounts of an inflammatory molecule called interleukin-6 (or IL6), which, in concentrated amounts, can harm nearby neurons and hinder their functionality. Additionally, the neurons from Autistic children were found to fire less frequently, form fewer synapses (connections with other neurons) and release less glutamate, which is used to excite surrounding neurons and transmit signals.