Umbilical cord blood provides hope for children with autism

A first-of-its-kind study involving children with autism shows very promising results. Thirty children with autism and ranging in age from two years to seven years old received an infusion of their 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.

Run by the Sutter Institute of Medical Research in the United States, the US FDA-approved clinical trial explored the use of stem cells from umbilical cord blood to improve language and behavior in children with autism.

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.”

clamping and cutting the umbilical cord Dr. Chez with a young autistic girl

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.

Autism is not the first neurological condition that scientists have ­attempted to treat using stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which have the potential to replicate other blood cells including platelets, red and white blood cells. In Singapore, 10 children with cerebral palsy have been treated with ­infusions using their own cord blood, according to consultant neurosurgeon Keith Goh of International Neuro ­Associates. Stem cells from cord blood have been used to treat other diseases, including certain cancers, blood diseases and metabolic disorders. Ongoing clinical trials overseas for other neurological disorders include Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

More recently, a clinical trial out of Duke University Medical Center has shown additional promise. We've watched this clinical trial closely. We were able to give you an early upbeat update in late 2015 and, late last year, share with you videos of the documented progress, but Duke University hadn't officially released its findings on the safety of treating autistic children with their own umbilical cord blood until early 2017.

Read more about the clinical trial at Sutter Institute of Medical Research.