A day after she was born, Noa had a stroke and began convulsing. Now, two years later, a promising new treatment at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer outside Tel Aviv could help her battle cerebral palsy.
Noa, whose real name is being withheld at the request of her family, is the first patient to undergo this special treatment at an Israeli hospital. It involves a cord-blood transfusion from siblings or a suitable match, and it is performed only on children and babies. It was approved specifically for use on Noa due to the unique circumstances of her case, in what is often referred to as “compassionate use.”
“Studies have shown that cord blood, and the stem cells it may contain, can help to treat brain injuries,” said Omer Bar-Yosef, a pediatric neurologist and at the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital at the Sheba Medical Center. “It was tested on animal models where the offspring was hurt at birth and consequently suffered from CP, be it because of compromised blood flow to the brain or for other reasons. In those cases, transfusions of umbilical cord blood during the first hours or days after their birth had a positive effect on the brain tissue and on performance. Now this method is being tested on humans.”
The trial is run jointly with Taburit, a company that preserves umbilical cord blood.
Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, a professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine, is considered the world’s leading expert in this field. She is also the director of the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank, one of the largest cord blood banks in the world.
In one of Kurtzberg’s clinical trials, she found that children who received cord blood transfusion improved their motor skills by 30% compared to the control group. According to Bar-Yosef, those born with CP currently have no available treatment, only rehabilitative care such as physiotherapy and speech and language therapy.
Bar-Yosef took note of the promising outcome and hopes to replicate it in Israel.
“The method appears to yield positive results, and they should not be overlooked, but I am not going to tell parents that we are going to solve everything,” he said. “The treatment was proved to be safe for children, but we need to tread carefully and set the proper expectations. When a wheelchair-bound child begins walking with crutches or walkers this is a major improvement. When a child with a severe speech impediment begins to speak normally, we call that a major step forward.”
Noa’s physicians have noted improved language and communication skills, but they have no way of telling whether this is a natural development or a consequence of the trial. The improvement in Noa’s condition was not lost on her mother, Tamar.
“She still has CP, so this is not a 180-degree turnaround, but we have begun to see her cognitive skills develop, and she uses many more words,” Tamar said. “She used to have this perplexed gaze, but now she tries to repeat everything I say, everything is much more open and easy.”
According to Taburit CEO Amnon Pelz, the Health Ministry decided last December to subsidize the preservation of cord blood for some 50 families where one member was “highly likely to require a bone marrow transfusion.”