JERUSALEM (VINnews) — A team of Israeli scientists is endeavoring to use umbilical cord blood to effect changes and improvements in the lives of autistic children. To mark World Autism Awareness Day which fell last Friday, the team published some of its findings and called on mothers to collect and save the blood as it could be used to treat their children at a later stage.
The treatments are based on a protocol which was developed by the Duke University Medical Center involving a one-time infusion to patients of some of their own cord blood cells which were taken from their umbilical cord at birth. Dr. Omer Bar Yosef, a clinical and research neurobiologist at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, told the Jerusalem Post that he has so far treated 25 children with autism as part of a Phase II trial and hopes to treat up to 60 children in this phase of the trial.
“There is no chemotherapy involved, no chemical medications,” explained Dr. Moshe Israeli, who serves as scientific director at Taburit, one of the leaders in the field of umbilical cord blood collection and preservation in Israel. “There is no concern; it’s not risky.”
The team has seen encouraging results in a number of different areas, including communication and social and emotional responsiveness.
“We don’t know 100% why it is working,” Israeli said. “There is a unique type of stem cell in the cord blood. These cells make their way through the blood to the brain, and we think they promote the growth of new synapses in the brain.
Synapses connect neurons in the brain to neurons in the rest of the body. Scientists have discovered that the difficulty in managing social interactions found in people with autism is due to poor maturation of the synapses. The synapses from cord blood could improve the brain’s neuron connections enabling improved social interaction.
“One or two years after treatment, we see through brain imaging that there are more synapses,” Israeli explained. “The treatment influences the brain to grow and become more efficient and have better communication.”
While Israel only allows the use of one’s own cord cells or their siblings’ cells, a Phase III trial being run at Duke also allows for the use of third-party cord blood cells, meaning the cells of an unrelated donor that is stored in one of the cord blood banks.In the US, the treatment is already approved for compassionate use.
Bar Yosef warned that the treatment does not help everyone, but added that even if only 20% of those treated improve, it would be considered an amazing result, since no previous treatment had targeted the neurological aspects of autism.
Hanna Abramovich-Biniachvili, whose seven-year-old Avi had the treatment two years ago, says that her son is now more capable of controlling his moods and his relationship with space, and interacts much better with the environment around him.
“He started to speak, make eye contact,” she said. “We see such a dramatic improvement.”
Abramovich-Biniachvili said that the family has invested and continues to invest in additional supports for Avi to help improve his ability to function, but she believes the cord blood is what made the difference.
“There is a dramatic difference that we did not see before this treatment from anything else,” Abramovich-Biniachvili says.
Around 1 in 100 children in Israel are diagnosed with autism according to ALUT, the Israeli Society of Children and Adults with Autism, but the numbers are rising and there could be 50,000 Israeli citizens with the disorder within the next decade.