Premature babies often have to be put on breathing machines because their lungs aren't fully developed, and some develop a condition called bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD.
BPD is an inflammation and scarring in the lungs that results from the oxygen given to premature infants. The symptoms can last for many months and in a few cases leave the child with lifelong health problems. The condition affects some 10,000 newborns every year. So far treating it has usually meant tackling the symptoms.
A recent Canadian study might point to a new treatment, however, involving stem cells from umbilical cords.
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Bernard Thébaud, a neonatologist and senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and CHEO Research Institute, recently authored a study in the journal Thorax that seems to show stem cells called mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) helping to repair damaged lungs in newborn rats.
Thébaud and his team took the stem cells from an umbilical cord and injected them into the lungs of baby rats as they were put on oxygen. The cells seemed to protect the lungs from damage when they were used immediately.
When the stem cells were injected into the rats' lungs after two weeks, they appeared to help repair damage. Tests on the rats some six months later -- a long time for a rat, akin to a middle-aged person -- the rats' lung function seemed normal.
Newborn rats have lungs that are roughly similar to a developing human fetus at 24 weeks. The treatment is still a long way from being used in humans, but the results so far are promising.
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Another twist to the findings is that the MSCs produce a substance that when injected into the lungs seems to have the same effect as the cells themselves do.
A control group of rats who were never put on oxygen as newborns was also given the stem cells, and those rats looked normal, so the MSCs don't appear to do any harm.
Thébaud wants to try pilot studies in humans in the next two years, with the possibility of a randomized clinical trial after that.