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Donated placental stem cells may protect newborns from brain injury

29 November 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1123

Human stem cells from the placentas of healthy newborns may reduce brain injury in growth-restricted babies, new research in piglets shows.

Researchers have reported that treatment with placenta-derived stem cells could protect newborns from the long-term effects of fetal growth restriction, by reducing damaging inflammation in the brain. Currently there is no treatment available for the condition, which affects 32 million babies born each year.

'We know there's inflammation in the brain [of growth-restricted babies] and it doesn't cease once these babies are born,' explained Dr Julie Wixey, senior author from the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research, Australia. 'Our study has shown we could reduce inflammation and ongoing brain injury by treating these newborns on the day they're born using a combination of two types of stem cells,'.

Published in Nature Regenerative Medicine, the study examined the effects of placenta-derived stem cells from three healthy human donors in growth-restricted piglets. Two types of stem cell were infused in combination – endothelial colony forming cells (ECFCs) and mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). To assess for inflammation in the brain, the temperature and weight of the piglets were continuously monitored and their brain architecture analysed four days after birth.

The research group found that one dose of stem cells on the day of birth reduced adverse changes in the brain in the animal model. Treated piglets showed an increase in expression of anti-inflammatory genes, and a decrease in harmful pro-inflammatory genes, assessed by PCR of brain cells. Brain imaging also showed a lower level of neurone cell death in treated versus untreated growth-restricted piglets, and improved blood vessel integrity.

Although the underlying causes vary, fetal growth restriction is a result of inadequate nutrient and oxygen supply across the placenta during development. Up to half of growth-restricted babies develop life-long impairments, likely a result of brain inflammation at birth, ranging from mild behavioural and learning disabilities to cerebral palsy.

Dr Jatin Patel, who co-invented the method of stem cell harvest used in the study at the University of Queensland, said: 'This has been a fantastic collaborative study and demonstrates the exciting potential of stem cell therapy in the near future in treating unwell babies.'

The research group next want to see whether the therapy can continue to offer protection from brain injury longer-term, and confirm that the stem cells are not producing unwanted side effects in other parts of the body.

Although Dr Wixey estimated human trials are at least five years away, she said: 'We're really excited by the outcomes of this study and we hope it'll improve these babies' lives long term.'

Combination of human endothelial colony-forming cells and mesenchymal stromal cells exert neuroprotective effects in the growth-restricted newborn
Nature Regenerative Medicine |  18 November 2021
New mothers could help protect other babies' brains
The University of Queensland |  19 November 2021
Placenta stem cells donated by Brisbane mums are being researched to help growth-restricted babies
ABC News |  20 November 2021
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