The life story of 11-year-old Danny Bullen is familiar to families of autistic children the world over. Like so many others with his condition, Danny has extreme difficulty communicating his needs. His lack of verbal communication makes life difficult on him and his parents. However, Danny’s story takes a turn that most autistic children have yet to experience.

This past March, Danny and his family traveled from the Spanish Canary Islands to Miami so that he could undergo an experimental stem cell treatment designed to increase his functionality. The $15,000 procedure involved combining Danny’s own stem cells with additional stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood. The combined cells were then reintroduced into Danny’s body.

Already Danny is showing signs of improvement. Though it’s still too early to declare unequivocal success, Danny is already starting to say a few words. He is also more alert and better able to communicate his needs. The family is so encouraged that they are prepared to return in August for a second treatment. If they can swing it financially, a third treatment is also in the works.

Improving Blood Flow in the Brain

Danny’s treatment is based on previous studies that looked at ways to improve blood flow to the brain; the idea being that increasing blood flow might help the brain do better at overcoming deficiencies. Interestingly enough, those autistic patients that showed improved blood flow also showed improvement in cognition, social skills, and motor skills.

One specific study published by the Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience journal followed three pediatric autism patients who were treated using human embryonic stem cell therapy. All three showed improvements in cognition, speech, balance, eye coordination, writing, and hypersensitivity to noises and smells.

Danny’s treatment was similar with the exception of the umbilical cord stem cells being used in place of embryonic stem cells. But given that both kinds of stem cells are nearly identical in their characteristics, doctors are encouraged by Danny’s results.

Moving to Larger Study Groups

Successfully treating Danny has given researchers the motivation they need to continue their research. They hope to begin testing the procedure on larger groups of patients in the future. Success with dozens of patients, or even hundreds, would pretty much prove that what the doctors have come up with actually works.

Some of the biggest players in regenerative medicine won’t be surprised if stem cells lead to more effective treatments for autism. The regenerative medicine community has known of the power of stem cells ever since the first stem cell treatment – the bone marrow transplant for leukemia – was approved back in the 1970s.

Success with larger patient groups would simply demonstrate what many of these organizations already know, explains Utah-based Apex Biologix. It would show that stem cells truly have the power to heal by replacing defective cells with healthy ones.

Still a Long Way to Go

While autism researchers are rightfully celebrating Danny’s post-treatment improvements, they are quick to remind patients and their families that there is still a long way to go. One study certainly doesn’t make for conclusive science. Rest assured that research is ongoing. Danny’s measured improvement is only likely to encourage the acceleration of that research.

In the meantime, there are other successful stem cell treatments for less serious conditions already on the market. For example, there are thousands of orthopedic specialists, sports medicine practitioners, and family doctors offering patients stem cell injections for osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal injuries. These procedures utilize autologous stem cells – meaning patients provide the cells themselves – so they are safe and relatively risk-free.

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Sara T. Loving

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