Cord Blood Stem Cells Prove Successful in Treating Heart Damage

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 16, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Cord Blood Stem Cells Prove Successful in Treating Heart Damage

by Steven Ertelt Editor
February 16, 2004

Durham, NC ( — While researchers in South Korea tout the potential success that could be gained from the use of embryonic stem cells, scientists at Duke University have concluded studies showing that adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood can rebuild damaged heart tissue.

The Duke study proves for the first time that adult stem cells enter damaged heart tissue and rebuild it to prevent further damage.

Umbilical cord blood stem cells have long been successful in treating heart, brain and liver defects in children with rare metabolic diseases. However, until the Duke study, researchers weren’t sure whether the cells were actually rebuilding the damaged organs by morphing into the cells needed to rebuild the right kinds of tissues.

"We’ve had convincing clinical evidence that stem cells from umbilical cord blood extended much farther than the blood-forming and immune systems, and that they can differentiate themselves into brain, heart, liver and bone cells," says Joanne Kurtzberg, director of the Pediatric Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program at Duke University.
"But now we have examined heart tissue on a cellular level and proven that donor cells are not only present in heart tissue, but they have become heart muscle cells," she says.

Duke research fellow Kirsten Crapnell analyzed heart tissue from a four year old boy with a rare disease that results in the absence of critical enzymes that break down blood sugars. Because of this, cell-damaging byproducts accumulate in vital organs such as the liver, heart and brain.

The boy was treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells from a baby girl donor. Crapnell was able to distinguish between the male and female stem cells and see that the female stem cells were indeed infiltrating the heart and becoming the right kind of cells needed to repair the damage.

Indeed, it appears that donor stem cells inexplicably hone in on defective tissue and establish themselves there, as though they are missionaries recruited to rescue cells in need, the scientists said.

The same phenomenon is likely at work in brain tissue as well, said Jennifer Hall, M.D., another research fellow at Duke.

Cord blood transplants appear to halt or slow the progressive brain damage that is caused by metabolic diseases. However, there is a delay in the time from when stem cells are injected into the patient and when they eventually differentiate into the type of stem cells needed to repair the damage.

Hall’s studies showed that scientists may be able to nudge the adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood into becoming brain stem cells that could be injected directly into a patient’s brain. This would decrease the time it would take for the adult stem cells to accomplish their goal.

"Delivering cells directly to the brain could hasten engraftment of the cells and could ultimately result in repairing of neurologic tissue," Hall said.

Hall said the potential also exists for repairing spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.

Crapnell will present the findings in Orlando, Florida at a meeting of the International Association of Bone Marrow Transplantation Research.