Genetics and environmental and immunological factors are thought to play a role, and possibly the interaction of these and other variables, Chez said. He pointed out that autism is not actually one disorder, but stretches across a spectrum in which some children have more severe symptoms than others. One theory suggests autism occurs because cells in the brain, called neurons, are not connecting normally. Chez said stem cells may address this issue.
Chez is particularly interested in the relationship between the nervous and immune systems, and said stem cells from cord blood have been used to treat some cancers and immune disorders. In some children with autism, spinal fluid tests and brain tests have indicated that immune problems exist, and, he said, "We hope this therapy may correct some of those deficiencies."
Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, said this is a well-designed preliminary study looking at whether or not cord blood can be helpful. Adesman was not involved in the study.
"There are mixed opinions about this approach," Adesman said. "A lot of research suggests that there may be an immunological component involved in autism, but some are skeptical this specific approach will be effective. If nothing else, this study is designed such that we should have preliminary results in about a year's time."
Even if the results are positive, he said, it could take a while before the general population has access to treatments.
"The media often trumpets new findings that are hopeful, but obviously there can be significant time before research translates to the bedside. Not every finding is applicable to all patients," he said. "There are elements of premature hope in many stories."
Chez also cautioned that this is very early research.
"You can't rush good science," he said. "We don't want to give people false hope. Part of doing this is to decide whether we should be doing this."
The U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has more about autism research.
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