A research team from UC Davis Health has been working in collaboration with the Fetal Surgery Department at the medical campus in recent months. They are working together to launch a groundbreaking clinical trial which will treat in-utero patients suffering from a birth defect called spina bifida using placental stem cells.
One of the lead researchers, Dr. Aijun Wang, described the birth defect writing: “Spina bifida is a birth defect, specifically a spinal cord injury that happens early in gestation. During normal fetal development, the spinal neural tube folds early in gestation to cover the spinal cord and protect it. But spina bifida causes the exposure of a part of the spinal cord, usually in the lumbar area. The most severe form of spina bifida, called myelomeningocele, causes an extrusion of the spinal cord during gestation and even after birth.”
Most babies born with spina bifida are partially paralysed and cannot walk. They are usually treated with fetal surgery, which can be extremely dangerous and does not cure the condition.
Dr. Diana Farmer, the chair for the department of surgery, worked closely with Dr. Wang on this project. She explained the potential of stem cells for treating spina bifida, writing: “We use placental stem cells because we think and have been able to show that they have unique and special properties compared to bone marrow-derived stem cells and other stem cells They are specially cultured and engineered to secrete growth factors important to nerve growth and development.”
Dr. Jan Nolta, the director of the stem cell program at the UC Davis gene therapy center, was also involved. She mentioned that the procedure was very safe, saying: “The stem cells come from the placenta of different qualified donors, whom we have tested their blood, screened and made sure they do not have any viruses.”
The stem cells which are used have both regenerative and anti-inflammatory properties. They are capable of reversing apoptosis (cell damage), which makes them ideal for helping the growing foetus overcome spina bifida.
Further clinical trials will be required, but researchers are very positive about the potential of stem cells for treating spina bifida.