Umbilical cord blood is normally thrown away at birth. But for World Autism Awareness Day on Friday, a team of doctors and scientists are calling on new mothers to collect and save the blood because it could be used for lifesaving – or even life-changing – treatments.
A cord blood treatment is starting to give hope to some children with autism.
Dr. Omer Bar Yosef, a clinical and research neurobiologist at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, has thus far treated 25 children with autism as part of a Phase II trial using a protocol developed at Duke University Medical Center.
Patients receive a one-time infusion of their own cord blood cells.
“There is no chemotherapy involved, no chemical medications,” explained Dr. Moshe Israeli, who serves as scientific director at Taburit, one of the leaders in the field of umbilical cord blood collection and preservation in Israel. “There is no concern; it’s not risky.”
The results in some cases are improved communication and emotional and social responsiveness.
“We don’t know 100% why it is working,” Israeli said. “There is a unique type of stem cell in the cord blood. These cells make their way through the blood to the brain, and we think they promote the growth of new synapses in the brain.”
Synapses connect neurons in the brain to neurons in the rest of the body.
These cord cells can only be found in cord blood; they are not found in adults later in life.
“One or two years after treatment, we see through brain imaging that there are more synapses,” Israeli explained. “The treatment influences the brain to grow and become more efficient and have better communication.”
While Israel only allows the use of one’s own cord cells or their siblings’ cells, a Phase III trial being run at Duke also allows for the use of third-party cord blood cells, meaning the cells of an unrelated donor that is stored in one of the cord blood banks.
In the US, the treatment is already approved for compassionate use.
Cord blood treatments are not something new. They have been used for decades to treat patients with blood cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas, as well as certain disorders of the blood and immune systems. In the last 10 to 15 years, scientists began to see the benefit for neurological disorders, too.
He said the goal is to complete the Phase II autism trial with 60 patients.
Today, there are 30,000 people with autism in Israel, but the rate is rising. Around one in 100 children are diagnosed with autism, according to ALUT, the Israeli Society of Children and Adults with Autism. That number is expected to reach one in 90 in the near future, Israeli said, and there are expected to be 50,000 citizens with the disorder within the next decade.
Bar Yosef stressed that the treatment does not work for everyone. Rather, only certain subsets have shown improvement. But he said that even if only 20% of those treated improve, it would be considered an amazing result.
Just ask Hanna Abramovich-Biniachvili, whose seven-year-old Avi had the treatment two years ago. Since then Avi has been able to better control his moods and his relationship with space, and to better interact with his environment.
“He started to speak, make eye contact,” she said. “We see such a dramatic improvement.”
Abramovich-Biniachvili said that the family has invested and continues to invest in additional supports for Avi to help improve his ability to function. But she believes the cord blood is what made the difference.
“There is a dramatic difference that we did not see before this treatment from anything else,” she said.
Published April 1, 2021 The Jerusalem Post