Treating Addiction with Stem Cells
Stem cells target damaged areas in the brain with their payload which promotes rehabilitation and renewed connectivity
Research conducted at Bar-Ilan University’s Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center shows that stem cells originating in the placenta can reach damaged tissue in the brains of drug addicts and initiate a rehabilitation process.
The development of a treatment based on placenta cells may solve one of the most formidable challenges in the field of detoxification: the difficulty of addicts to disconnect from the memory that brings them back again and again to the drug. The research is led by Prof. Gal Yadid and PhD student Hilla Pe’er-Nissan of BIU’s Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences and Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center.
A non-invasive treatment without drug substitutes, based on placenta-derived stem cells, offers an innovative and safe approach to the treatment of drug addiction and rehabilitation following withdrawal. The treatment, currently after a pre-clinical trial and awaiting a human trial, succeeds in overcoming one of the biggest challenges in the field of addictions: addicts have difficulty breaking away from the initial “sweet” memory that makes them return to the drug, even if they know that the same substance makes them miserable. The treatment allows the brain to create new memory cells that assimilate new memories that compete with the "addictive memory".
Prof. Yadid describes himself as a “frustrated neuro-psycho-pharmacologist”. His frustration stems from the fact that the medicinal treatments available today for people suffering from addictions do not provide a viable solution: 30% of patients drop out within three months of starting rehabilitation, and of those who complete the rehabilitation program, about 50% return to drugs. These people, who do not respond well to treatment, endure constant suffering and are at greater risk for suicide. In addition, this ongoing situation causes a heavy familial, social, and economic burden.
This is the reality that led Prof. Yadid to develop an innovative targeted treatment, which focuses on freeing the reward system from the memory of the drug, which leads to the addict’s compulsive behavior. The researchers turned to treatment with the help of stem cell transplantation, an approach that is safe, with no side effects, and already well known for the treatment of other diseases. Moreover, the innovation in the work of Prof. Yadid and collaborators is that the stem cells are administered intranasally (via inhalation), which brings them directly to the brain. This method allows precision in reaching the targeted tissue that was damaged by drug use, as well as real time monitoring using CT scanning, all without dangerous substances or drug substitutes.
The stem cells inhaled by the subject navigate their way through the brain and settle in the damaged areas. The load they carry, which includes growth factors, leads both to the restoration of the damaged cells, which do not release nerve messengers at the right rate, and to restored connectivity.
The stem cells know to settle where the brain needs them the most, and Prof. Yadid believes that this is chemical communication. The cells “smell” where their help is needed and reach the damaged tissue. “We actually have a ‘mail pigeon’. I can send with it any payload that is needed,” explains Prof. Yadid. After completing their mission in the damaged tissue, the stem cells migrate to another damaged site, or die and leave the body. The ability to navigate and nest in the right place makes the treatment safe, without the concern that the stem cell will settle in an area that is not associated with the addiction and cause side effects.
The study, published in the Pharmaceutics journal, shows that neurogenesis (formation of new brain cells) is restored at a level of 95%. It is the flexibility of the stem cells which allows them to build new, healthy tissue in the place to which they have migrated. Cell tracking was performed by linking the cells to gold nanoparticles. The gold makes it possible to follow the migration of the cells from the moment of inhalation until they reach the brain, using a CT scanner. The researchers saw that it takes a day for the cells to reach the specific brain regions, and the tissue restoration process lasts several days. Beyond the introduction of gold nanoparticles, no further manipulation was performed on the cells, so it is a completely natural treatment. “Since these cells have already been tested on patients with other diseases, and with a high level of safety, we hope that the next stage is to treat addicts who have not been successful in quitting,” Prof. Yadid concludes.
The study conducted by Prof. Yadid and his collaborators – The Pluristem Therapeutics Inc. led by Dr. Racheli Ofir, and the laboratory of Prof. Rachela Popovtzer and Dr. Oshra Betzer – was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.