On the day of Coontz’s procedure, Gary Steinberg, the chair of neurosurgery, drilled a nickel-size burr hole into Coontz’s skull and injected stem cells around the affected part of her brain.
Coontz is part of a small group of stroke patients who have undergone the experimental stem cell treatment pioneered by Steinberg.
Conventional wisdom has long maintained that brain circuits damaged by stroke are dead. But Steinberg was among a small cadre of researchers who believed they might be dormant instead, and that stem cells could nudge them awake.
“This important study is one of the first suggesting that stem cell administration into the brain can promote lasting neurological recovery when given months to years after stroke onset,” says Seth Finklestein, a Harvard neurologist and stroke specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Stem cells start off unspecialized, but as they divide, they can grow into particular cell types.
How did the stem cells jump-start those dormant circuits? “If we understood exactly what happened,” he says wryly, “We’d really have something.” Here’s what didn’t happen: The stem cells didn’t turn into new neurons.
Key questions await future researchers: How many cells should doctors use? What’s the best way to administer them? And are the cells doing all the work, or is the needle itself contributing? Could the death of the cells be playing a role?