Premature babies have a very difficult start to life. Their bodies are not adequately prepared for life outside of the womb and they are vulnerable to a range of illnesses.
One of the most common illnesses suffered by premature babies is called necrotising enterocolitis. It is a life-threatening disease of the bowels, which affects about 10% of all pre-term babies.
A team of scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) are attempting to beat this disease with the help of stem cells. They have been testing a treatment that uses human placental-derived stem cell (hPSC) therapy with promising results.
Unfortunately, necrotising enterocolitis is a particularly difficult condition to treat as the cause is unknown. Researchers suspect it is a multi-faceted disease which involves several mechanisms of the immune system, bacterial colonisation, and the inflammatory response.
The condition occurs when the wall of a premature baby’s intestine is invaded by bacteria, leading to infection and inflammation. If the stem cell therapy is shown to be viable, it could save the lives of thousands of babies each year.
The WFIRM scientists used a pre-clinical animal model to test the capacity of human placental-derived stem cell therapy to treat necrotising enterocolitis. They were interested in testing both the efficacy and safety of the treatment.
As the lead author of the study, Dr. Victoria Weis, explained: ”In our recent studies, we demonstrated that a promising placental stem cell therapy could induce repair of established damage caused by the disease. Interestingly, we saw that the predominate repair occurred in the barrier cells that line the intestine, which presents a potential new therapeutic target.”
Senior study author Anthony Atala, MD wrote of their findings: "Our results show that stem cell treatment can promote intestinal healing. In this disease model, utilising them as an early intervention may be better tolerated in the infant and, further, may decrease disease progression to advanced stages that require surgery."