Our children are defined by our love for them, hugging them after a hard day and telling them that you love them are common events for us all. Displays of affection like this can have astronomically positive effects on how our children feel but for families where autism is present, it can seem very challenging to replicate those effects for autistic children.
Those with autism can find social interactions and actions such as expressing love difficult as well as verbal and nonverbal communication, which are often grouped into bigger areas of concern like overall behavior, social interactions, language development and sensory sensitivity.
Raising a child that has autism is a growing concern for many parents, with numbers rising in autistic children. As of now, autism affects 1/37 boys and 1/59 children in general. Current therapies for autism are designed to treat and dilute some of the symptoms of the condition, but scientists have yet to figure out to move a child away from the spectrum.
However, breakthroughs in the field in recent years led by research institutions such as the Duke University Medical Center are bringing new hope and excitement in treatment potential for autism.
Dr. Kurtzberg's Studies
In June 2014, Duke University Medicine was awarded $15 million to support an innovative research program to explore the use of umbilical cord blood cells to treat autism, stroke, cerebral palsy and related brain disorders. The various phases of a clinical trial take years to complete, but in early 2017, Duke University released the results from its preliminary, phase I study on the safety of treating children with autism with an intravenous infusion of their own umbilical cord blood.
The results are exciting, enabling them to move to a full-blown double-blind, placebo-controlled phase two study. If the results follow what they have been seeing so far, it will spawn a better new way to treat autism.
In the phase I study, researchers found that among 25 children ages 2–5, more than two-thirds appeared to show improvements in speech, socialization, and eye contact as reported by parents and assessed by researchers.
“We are cautiously optimistic about these early findings,” said Duke Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Specialist Joanne Kurtzberg, MD, who is a principal investigator of the study. Dr. Kurtzberg is also the medical director for Cryo-Cell International.
Its phase one trial included two evaluations: one at six months and another at 12 months. At the six-month evaluations, between 60 and 70 percent of the children showed improvements in aspects of their autism including sensory behaviors, receptive and expressive communication, repetitive and manipulative behaviors, and social withdrawal.
Dr. Chez’s Study
Another study run by the Sutter Institute of Medical Research explored the use of stem cells from umbilical cord blood to improve language and behavior in children with autism. Twenty-nine children with autism and ranging in age from two years to seven years received an infusion of their own cord blood stem cells stored at birth. Afterwards, the participants were regularly tested for a year using a variety of psychological and cognitive assessment tools. Sixty percent of the parents of the children who participated in the study said they saw moderate to significant improvements, especially in language and social skills.
The trial’s principal investigator, Dr. Michael Chez, director of Pediatric Neurology at the Sutter Institute, reports that “the results of this study indicate that cord blood stem cells may offer ways to modulate or repair the immune systems of these patients with autism, and in doing so, improve language and some behavior in some children. More work is needed to prove this, but for a small placebo-controlled pilot study, this is a very good outcome.”
Dr. Chez also believes that any positive effects seen after the treatment would probably not wear off over time.
“When children with autism gain a new skill, it’s like making a new connection (in the brain). The brain shouldn’t deteriorate unless it is a degenerative disease,” he said.
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