Unlike many of the diseases in which induced pluripotent stem cell therapies are being researched, the vast majority of spinal cord injuries are caused by external physical trauma. As a result, the impact of these injuries on patient function, the level of function potentially regained using current treatments, and the impact of those treatments on other aspects of patient functioning varies immensely. Nevertheless, spinal cord injury is often quite serious, and can result in patients experiencing paralysis, muscular atrophy, and paraplegia/quadriplegia.
In spinal cord injuries, the extent of the damage experienced by patients is often determined not just by the extent of the physical trauma inflicted in an injury, but also the secondary immune response to that injury. The subsequent level of inflammation, loss of blood flow, and cell death can play a significant role in determining the full extent of damage as well as the prospects for recovery.
Current treatments are somewhat crude, spanning the gamut from steroid therapy and long-term pain management to surgical interventions, which may be utilized for purposes as diverse as spinal stabilization, repair or replacement of vertebrae, and reduction of pressure on the cord. Experimentation with robotic exoskeletons and other aides in severe cases of paralysis have more recently come to the fore. But without the replacement of lost nervous tissue, the consequent loss of motor and sensory functions in cases of more severe spinal cord injuries cannot be overcome. This is the underlying promise of therapies for spinal cord injury utilizing induced pluripotent stem cells: because these cells can differentiate into new nervous tissue from a patient's own cells, there is significant potential to reconstruct lost nervous tissue and, therefore, for those patients to recover a significant degree of lost function.