New research finding that stem cells could be used as a potential treatment for autism comes just in time for April, which is autism awareness month. Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder because it refers to a broad range of conditions affecting mental perception and behavior, is characterized by difficulties with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech and nonverbal communication, and unique skills and ways of thinking. Just as there are many different forms and levels of autism, there is not just one cause; the rumors that autism can be caused by vaccinations has been proven false. Instead, autism can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, making it difficult for scientists to pinpoint the causes behind individual cases and to determine one’s risk factor.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children in the United States will be diagnosed with autism. To date, there has been no known cure or even a treatment for autism besides therapy, but a new study from Duke University just may change what we know to be true about autism. The study, which included 25 children with autism between the ages of two and six, used umbilical cord blood transfusions with the children’s own rare stem cells to assess whether the children displayed improved behavior a year after receiving the treatment.
The study reported behavioral improvements in 70 percent of the participants, including improved speech patterns and vocabulary and less repetitive behaviors. However, many questions remain unanswered and there could have been some factors at play to skew the results. For example, improvements in behavior correlates to the children’s IQs and not how many stem cells they received, so improvements in behavior could be attributed to the development of new skills and coping methods over time, and not to the stem cell treatment.
Additionally, this study did not use controls to compare results between treated and nontreated children. Overall, the results are encouraging though, and a second, larger trial is already underway. This new project will study 165 autistic children between the ages of two and eight, and will be overseen by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The leaders of the study, Dr. Geraldine Dawson and Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg are both optimistic about the potential of the study yet, to avoid instilling false hope, emphasize that a control group is needed, which the new study will have.