The body's own immune system may someday be able to enable those who have suffered spinal injuries to walk again, if recent research is any indication.

A study conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, suggests that key immune cells are able to work with stem cells to mend broken spines. This has been accomplished in lab mice. A vaccine was used to increase the number of specific immune cells called T-helpers. These T-helpers protect the protein coat called myelin, which surrounds nerve cells. This vaccine stimulated and protected the growth of stem cells in the spine, allowing them to grow into nerve cells. Eventually, the mice that received the vaccine were able to walk again.

Aside from the fact that stem cell research has become a political issue in the U.S., this research flies in the face of scientific orthodoxy which dictates that the nervous system should be isolated from the often harsh action of immune cells.

The recent study was headed by Michal Schwartz. She has spent the last 10 years studying the ability of the immune system to assist the central nervous system in repairing itself. Her results demonstrated that immune cells play an important role in nerve boosting T-cells while injecting mice with stem cells that had partially differentiated into nerve cells could reverse spinal damage.
These findings indicate that immuno-suppressive drugs should not be used in treating spinal injuries with stem-cell therapy, she says.

Geoffrey Raisman, director of University College London’s Spinal Repair Unit, is skeptical. “There is no scientific basis for this paper,” he states. “The experiments reported do not have validity. It is beyond the bounds of possibility that this approach could improve spinal cord injury. I am surprised that it was published.”

On the other hand, Phillip Popovich at Ohio State University describes Schwartz' research as "encouraging. ” However, he believes much more animal testing is required before experiments are performed on human subjects. Popovich is also a leading researcher in stem cell research.

Says Schwartz: “I’m aware that this research is controversial. I think that neurologists are not aware of the diverse functions of the immune system...I think they’re locked into the concept that the immune system can be only detrimental to the central nervous system. But I think there’s clearly evidence now to say that’s not the case."