For infants born prematurely, lung and brain illnesses can have severe and long-term health effects. According to the US National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, about one in three infants born with birth weights below two pounds will be diagnosed with bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), a lung disease characterized by poor lung development.
A study now published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine demonstrates that bone marrow–derived, multipotent mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) may have therapeutic benefits in treating lung diseases such as BPD and pulmonary hypertension. The study was conducted at the University of Alberta, with collaborators from McGill University as well as labs in France and the US. Led by Dr. Bernard Thébaud, the study used both in vitro and in vivo experimental models to test the potential benefits of delivering stem cells to the damaged lungs.
“We found in the in vitro tests that the MSCs were attracted toward oxygen damaged lung tissue over that of normal lung tissue,” said Dr. Thébaud. “This was extremely encouraging and predictive of our in vivo tests, where we found that the delivery of stem cells to the lungs of diseased rats improved lung structure and function and attenuated pulmonary hypertension, so that the rats had an increased rate of survival and greater exercise tolerance.”
“More exciting though was the finding that MSCs did not as initially thought, replace the damaged lung cells. Rather, the MSCs seem to protect resident lung cells from being destroyed. Our conclusion is that the stem cells contributed to the prevention of lung injury, in part by producing protective factors for resident lung cells.”
In general, BPD follows ventilator and oxygen therapy for acute respiratory failure in premature infants. Health costs for BPD have steadily increased in recent decades as more and more extremely low birth weight babies survive. In addition, recent evidence suggests that BPD results in long-term respiratory morbidity, including early onset emphysema.
Current treatment for BPD and related illness is palliative, however this current research suggests that treatment options may one day be available to help prevent the development of serious lung disease in prematurely-born infants.
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