Stem cell trial shows promising results for children with autism

By Mike Visser and Amanda Ferguson

An innovative stem cell trial taking place at Duke University in North Carolina is giving hope to parents of children with autism, including one young Toronto family.

Noah Barcolos was two years old when he was diagnosed with autism.

Two years later, he’s one of 180 children taking part in the second phase of a study at the Durham, North Carolina school. The goal of the clinical trial is to see whether a transfusion of the child’s own umbilical cord blood packed with stem cells can help treat autism.

“Noah has mostly been in his own world,” according to his mom, Sammy Barcolos. “He likes to play around the kids rather than interact with them.”

But since taking part in the trial, Noah’s parents say the difference has been remarkable.

“He gets upset. We got more eye contract, interaction, facial expressions,” said Noah’s dad, Michael. “Now he makes the expressions at the right moments,” said Sammy. “He’s also calling me mommy. He’s never done that.”

Noah isn’t the only child in the trial to show progress.

“Generally we saw behaviours improve at 6 months compared to their baseline study,” Doctor Joanne Kurtzberg told CNN.

Kurtzberg is one of the lead researchers in the study. Phase one saw more than two-thirds of the children show behavioural and speech improvements.

Her early hypothesis is that certain immune cells within the cord blood are crossing the blood-barrier and altering brain connectivity.

Phase two is currently underway and it’s unknown when the findings will be released publicly.

Some autism specialists are cautioning parents that the trial results are premature, and Kurtzberg is among those encouraging caution.

“We don’t know whether this therapy will be curative for autism. But I am hopeful it will be curative in the long run.”

But for Michael Barcolos, even the tiniest changes provide hope.

“Everyone wants the same thing – an equal chance for their child. To have an equal chance at life.”

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