MICHAEL Schumacher might be able to “cry at stories” and “move his thumbs”, a top brain expert believes, as the Formula One legend undergoes stem cell treatment.
Neurological expert Matilde Leonardi recalled a patient who after four years in a “state of minimum consciousness suddenly responded with a laugh to a joke made by his wife, and then started talking to her”.
But, she urged caution in the case of Schumacher, telling msn.com that she didn’t want to raise false hopes, despite the F1 ace being taken to a state-of-the-art hospital in Paris for cutting-edge treatment this week.
The seven times World Champion driver arrived at the Georges Pompidou Hospital in the French capital on Monday, where he was welcomed by Professor Philippe Menasche, a pioneering surgeon specialising in stem cell breakthroughs.
He was admitted under tight security for transfusions of inflammation-reducing stem cells, part of ongoing care related to the horrific head injuries he suffered in a skiing accident almost six years ago.
Asked whether there were any “positive prospects for Schumacher’s future and patients like him”, Leonardi replied that she couldn’t give that guarantee.
She said that while research on stem cell treatment continues, “we cannot give illusions”.
Leonardi said that, as yet, “unfortunately, studies conducted with stem cells for diseases that affect the brain and marrow have not given the hoped-for effects”.
The expert said that although “very rare”, there were cases where patients improved after spending years in a state of “minimum consciousness”.
Leonardi is head of neurology in the scientific department of the Carlo Besta Neurological Institute in Milan.
Asked about a report from Le Parisien, which quoted an unnamed nurse in cardiology at Pompidou hospital describing Schumacher as “conscious,” Leonardi pointed out that there is often confusion between a vegetative state and the state of minimum consciousness.
She said that “patients in Schumacher’s condition open their eyes, they can turn their head when you call them, they can move their thumbs in response to a question, and they can cry at the end of a story”.
Le Parisien said that the champion, 50, had been injected with secretome – described by Prof Menashe as a “stem-cell juice” he uses to try to repair the heart.
The 69-year-old is best known for performing the world’s first embryonic cell transplant on a patient with heart failure in 2014.
It’s believed that the F1 star has now returned to his home in Gland, Switzerland.
Those close to Schumacher have always insisted his condition is a private matter, and his wife, Corinna, does not discuss his health in public.
And the Paris hospitals authority, citing France’s strict medical privacy rules, has not yet commented on his prognosis.
The Pompidou hospital said that it would neither confirm nor deny Le Parisien’s reports.
The Times said there “is no proof that stem-cell treatment could treat Schumacher’s brain injuries”.
Denis Angoulvant, a cardiologist at Tours University Hospital in central France, told the paper: “Work on cell therapy is not only of interest to the heart.
“Our colleagues who work on brain and bone marrow lesions … have the hope of regenerating this nervous tissue.
“Cell therapy work has shown that injected cells have effects, notably anti-inflammatory, that are quite beneficial.”
EARLIER VISITS TO PROF
According to unnamed sources, the champ made at least two visits to the Pompidou hospital earlier this year.
But he was admitted each time under a false name and treated by a small medical team, La Parisien added.
On both occasions, he arrived by helicopter from Switzerland and landed at a heliport in Issy-les-Moulineaux, near Paris.
During his first stay in the capital, Schumacher underwent tests at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, but key work by the professor was postponed until this week.
The seven time F1 champion suffered severe head injuries on a family skiing holiday in the French Alps on December 29 2013, and has not been seen in public since.
Schumacher was skiing with his son Mick when he fell and cracked his head on a boulder on the Combe de Saulire above Méribel.
He hit the right side of his head on the rock, splitting open his helmet. Doctors worked frantically to remove blood clots from his brain, but some were left because they were too deeply embedded.
The devastating injury left him paralysed and unable to speak.
Schumacher spent three months in a medically-induced coma after the accident and has had years of intensive care at his house in Gland, a Swiss town on the shore of Lake Geneva.
His condition now appears to have stabilised and in January this year he was taken by helicopter to the family’s holiday home in Mallorca for his 50th birthday.
And Jean Todt recently told Radio Monte-Carlo (RMC) that the pair had watched F1 races on TV.
He said: “I’m always careful with such statements, but it’s true. I saw the race together with Michael Schumacher at his home in Switzerland.”
While declining to provide too much detail on Schumacher’s health, out of respect for his family, Todt said: “Michael is in the best hands and is well looked after in his house.
“He does not give up and keeps fighting.”
What is stem cell therapy and how does it work?
STEM cell therapy is one of the most promising new medical treatments.
Stem cells are the body’s raw materials – the cells from which all cells in the body are generated.
In the lab, scientists can take stem cells and help them divide to create daughter cells.
These daughter cells can either become new stem cells or turn into specialised cells – blood, brain, heart muscle, bone cells for example.
Scientists and doctors across the world hope stem cells could prove the breakthrough for treating a range of conditions, from heart disease to cancer.
Stem cells can also be used to grow new tissue that can then be used for transplants and regenerative medicine.
It means in future, stem cells could be used to grow new organs rather than relying on organ donation.
How does it work?
One of the key ways stem cell treatment can work is to repair or regenerate damaged and diseased tissues.
By taking the cells and creating specialised heart muscle cells for example, doctors can help repair damaged heart muscle and use them to treat heart failure.
Who can benefit?
According to the Mayo Clinic in the US, patients with a wide range of illnesses and disease could benefit from the treatment.
They include those suffering:
- spinal cord injuries
- type 1 diabetes
- Alzheimer’s disease
- heart disease
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Schumacher remains the most successful driver in Formula One history, with a record 91 grand prix victories.
He won his first two titles with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 before five in a row with Ferrari between 2000-2004.
In January his family released a statement saying he was in “the very best of hands”.
Schumacher’s family fiercely protects his privacy. Thick forest around his castle-like home and high surrounding walls provide sanctuary from fan and media intrusion.
His son, Mick, who is now 20, won last year’s European Formula championship with eight victories and has since moved up to Formula Two.
Last month the German claimed his first Formula Two win in Hungary.