Umbilical cord blood therapy may improve autistic symptoms, study suggests

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Infusing an autistic child with blood from its umbilical cord may reduce symptoms of autism according to a recent study by researchers at the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development.

The small-scale experiment involved 25 children with a median age of 4.6 years (range 2.26–5.97) with a confirmed diagnosis of ASD. All participants also had to have an available autologous umbilical cord blood unit banked at a family or public cord blood bank.

The children were evaluated with a battery of behavioural and functional tests immediately prior to receiving a single intravenous infusion of their own umbilical cord blood. They were then re-evaluated using the same bank of tests during clinic visits 6 and 12 months later.

According to the study, infusion was found to be safe and many children showed significant improvements in their behaviour, social communication skills and autism symptoms.

However, the study stresses that the findings of the Phase I study are preliminary:

While these results provide some promise for future work with cord blood-derived therapies in ASD, it is important to note the limitations of this study. As an uncontrolled open-label study, it is not possible to determine whether the observed behavioral changes were due to the treatment or reflect the natural course of development during the preschool period.

The research team has already started work on a Phase II study, which they hope to complete within two years. This will include a blind control group. One group will receive a treatment of umbilical cord blood for six months, and the other group will receive a placebo infusion. After six months, the groups will switch and receive the opposite treatment.

The Phase II study will also include a larger group of 165 children with autism and will examine whether similar effects can be achieved if the infusion is allogeneic rather than autologous as this would extend access to the therapy to all affected children and not just those who have the resources and choose to bank their baby’s umbilical cord blood in a private bank.

The researchers are testing a hypothesis that umbilical cord blood-derived cell therapies may have potential in alleviating ASD symptoms by modulating inflammatory processes in the brain.

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