Fact Check: Did Stem Cells Really Help a Stroke Victim Walk Again?

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close up portrait of young medical researcher looking through miTrending on social media this week was a story that has stunned Stanford researchers and the scientific community at large: a new stem cell experiment conducted at the California university has helped a stroke victim walk again.

It’s the kind of story that’s destined to go viral in the social media age, a rare piece of happy news in an otherwise bleak election year. It’s also the kind of news story that content writers have a special phrase for: it’s too good to fact check.

So do the viral, click-baity headlines actually check out? Can stem cells really help people walk again?

There’s no simple way to summarize the research, published in the medical journal Stroke. However, for once the story actually does check out, and scientists say this really is a monumental breakthrough. Previously, neuroscientists had long believed that brain damage is both permanent and irreversible.

This study involved 18 patients who had already passed the “six-month plateau,” the point at which stroke victims rarely show further improvement. But after receiving a stem cell injection, the Washington Post reported that “seven of the 18 patients experienced significant improvement in their abilities following treatment.”

There’s no other way to put it — it’s a very big deal.

So how does the treatment work? It’s a gruesome process but one that’s considered relatively safe, as far as brain surgeries go. For the study, the Stanford team used “surgeons drilling a hole into the study participants’ skulls and injecting stem cells in several locations around the area damaged by the stroke.”

Stem cells are one of the most promising areas of regenerative medicine, which has been booming in recent years. Experts say that the regenerative medicine market will reach $6.5 billion by 2019, nearly triple the 2012 market value of $2.6 billion.

One day, scientists hope that regenerative medicine can be used to help people who have suffered disabilities from incurable diseases and injuries like broken spines, Alzheimer’s disease, and strokes. The new study is another promising sign of exciting breakthroughs to come.

However, the researchers urged caution and patience. The study was only meant to analyze the safety of the procedure, not its effectiveness. Plus, with only 18 subjects, larger sample sizes will be needed.

This isn’t the first time the media has hyped up a story about stem cells “miraculously” healing a stroke victim, and it likely won’t be the last.

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