Stem cells could be used in the future to repair the lungs of premature babies, according to the lead researcher on a study on newborn rats. Dr Bernard Thébaud from the University of Alberta, Canada, and his team studied the lungs of newborn rats given oxygen to simulate premature birth before being treated with bone marrow-derived stem cells. They showed for the first time that the stem cells repaired the rats' lungs and prevented further damage.
Two weeks after the newborn rats had the stem cells injected into their airways, they could run twice as far and had better survival rates than their untreated peers, according to the research team, whose paper was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
'The really exciting thing that we discovered was that stem cells are like little factories, pumping out healing factors,' says Dr Thébaud, who divides his time between the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and at the Stollery Children's Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Edmonton, Canada. He added: 'That healing liquid seems to boost the power of the healthy lung cells and helps them to repair the lungs'.
Baby rat lungs are similar to those of a 24-week premature human baby. Many premature babies have underdeveloped lungs and around half of babies born before 28 weeks develop chronic lung disease, according to a report in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre.
'The dilemma we face with these tiny babies is a serious one. When they are born too early, they simply cannot breathe on their own. To save the babies' lives, we put them on a ventilator and give them oxygen, leaving many of them with chronic lung disease,' said Dr Thébaud, adding: 'Before the next decade is out I want to put a stop to this devastating disease'.
The team is studying whether using stem cells as a lung therapy poses a risk of cancer. They are examining rats' lungs and organs three months and six months after treatment. The scientists are also examining whether human cord blood is a better lung disease treatment than bone marrow stem cells. 'We are also studying closely the healing liquid produced by the stem cells', explained Dr Thébaud. 'If that liquid can be used on its own to grow and repair the lungs, that might make the injection of stem cells unnecessary', he added.
The research has been welcomed by others in the field. 'I want to congratulate Dr. Thébaud and his team. This research offers real hope for a new treatment for babies with chronic lung disease', said Dr Roberta Ballard, Professor of Pediatrics at University of California, US. 'In a few short years, I anticipate we will be able to take these findings and begin clinical trials with premature babies', she explained.