Clinical trial at Georgia Health Sciences University uses cord blood to ease cerebral palsy symptoms

Allison Thurman, a 2-year-old with cerebral palsy, sits on father Mike Thurman's lap before an appointment with pediatric neurologist Elizabeth Sekul at the Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center. She has made speech improvements.   Sara Caldwell/Staff

 

With a black bow in her hair and Old McDonald Had a Farm wafting from a portable DVD player, Allison Thurman leaned against her father, Mike, in the chair and yawned Friday as fluid dripped from clear bags into her IV. The 2-year-old might be getting back a tiny piece of herself that could aid her development and help overcome cerebral palsy.

Allison Thurman, a 2-year-old with cerebral palsy, sits on father Mike Thurman’s lap before an appointment with pediatric neurologist Elizabeth Sekul at the Medical College of Georgia Children’s Medical Center. She has made speech improvements.

The Thurmans, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., are taking part in a randomized clinical trial at Georgia Health Sciences University to see whether Allison’s cord blood — the blood from the umbilical cord and placenta left over at birth — is safe and can help ease symptoms of cerebral palsy.

When the trial began last year, it was the only one of its type in the country, but there has since been a similar trial launched at Duke University.

The work follows on the heels of work in animal models with mature stem cells by Dr. James Carroll, the chief of child neurology at GHSU.

“We’ve shown that stem cells, adult-type stem cells, are effective in improving the course of brain injury in the animals,” Carroll said. “In all of those experiments, we used the treatment within a week or so of injury.”

Allison is one of six children who have begun the clinical trial, which started about a year and a half ago. Interest in the trial is high — about five or six calls come in each week — but the children who qualify are a small percentage of those, Carroll said. Many of the parents have not banked the child’s cord blood or are trying to use a sibling’s cord blood, which doesn’t meet the study’s criteria.

Part of the problem is that the American Academy of Pediatrics came out in 2007 against privately banking a child’s cord blood for possible use by the child later, Carroll said, which could be limiting the potential pool.

The Thurmans had banked the cord blood of their first daughter, Audrey, 4, and decided to do Allison’s, too.

“Just as an insurance policy,” Mike Thurman said.

They began noticing early on that Allison wasn’t hitting her developmental milestones; for instance, at 9 months, she couldn’t sit up by herself, something she still struggles to do. Allison was diagnosed and started treatment when she was a year old, and the Thurmans started looking on the Internet for help, mother Erica Thurman said.

“We were prepared to go overseas,” her husband said. Then they found the GHSU clinical trial and brought Allison for her first infusion.

The trial is “blinded,” so neither the parents nor the doctors know whether the cord blood or a placebo is being used, but at the second infusion three months later it is reversed so the child does get the cells in one of those two visits, Carroll said.

Allison was evaluated by child neurologist Elizabeth Sekul before her second dosing.

“Have you seen any big jumps or anything with it?” Sekul said as she entered the exam room at the Medical College of Georgia Children’s Medical Center, where Allison will get her second infusion.

“The biggest thing immediately when we got home was speech,” Mike Thurman said.

“What happened with speech?” Sekul asked.

“Her vocabulary seemed to dramatically increase,” he said.

In fact, she graduated from speech therapy a month after her first infusion and tested at higher than her age-level, Erica Thurman said.

“We hope she’ll be able to walk, sooner rather than later,” Mike Thurman said.

“To be a normal active child,” his wife said.

They can’t help but look for signs of improvement after their visits.

“You can drive yourself crazy thinking about it,” the girl’s mother said. Seated in the room watching Allison get an infusion, though, she seems hopeful.

“We feel very fortunate that we have this opportunity,” she said.

By Tom Corwin
Staff Writer
Saturday, Aug 13, 2011
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