The University of Illinois at Chicago has received a $5.25 million grant from the Department of Defense [DoD] to develop clinical trials using stem cells to treat eye injuries and expedite healing. The treatments utilize mesenchymal stem cells (the same type of stem cells found in teeth) due to their anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties, which can help heal scarring and preserve eyesight. The treatments are targeted for combat veterans injured due to explosions and chemical burns to the eye, but could also be used to treat chronic corneal injuries in other patients.
A stem cell graft to treat cartilage injuries has been approved by the FDA. Created by the biotechnology company Vericel, the procedure is called Matrix Associated Chondrocyte Implantation (MACI), and involves obtaining stem cells from the patient and culturing them in a lab. The cultured cells are then placed into a matrix to create layers of 3D tissue, which is then implanted back into the knee to repair the injured cartilage. This treatment is specifically targeted to younger patients [recall - younger stem cells are more plentiful and more active] who have experienced what is called a focal chondral defect, which is a lesion or hole in the cartilage due to an injury. This treatment is significant because these cartilage lesions often develop into osteoarthritis, with serious implications for the patient’s future quality of life. Hence, utilization of this FDA approved autologous stem cell treatment would not only address the physical distress of the condition but would also effectively mitigate the concerns and stress patients experience regarding future complications.
12 years ago, Dr. Anthony Atala, a leading stem cell specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, created a lab-grown bladder from a patient’s own stem cells. The procedure involved obtaining a sample from the patient’s bladder, and culturing the stem cells to grow into a full-sized, functional bladder. 12 years following the procedure, the patient is thriving and has experienced no long-term adverse effects from the regenerated bladder. Since then, the differentiation protocols utilized to grow the bladder have been successfully adapted to grow other functioning tissues like skin, cartilage and urethras, which is indicative of the paradigm shift stem cells represent in treating organ deficiencies.
University of Pennsylvania researchers have utilized dental stem cells from baby teeth to restore injured teeth. The clinical trial involved the use of the patient’s own (autologous) stem cells to treat an injured permanent tooth. The stem cells were obtained from a healthy baby tooth [hence, posed no risk of rejection, since they were the patient’s own], expanded in the lab and implanted into the injured tooth. In follow-ups one year following the procedure, patients in the experimental group regained sensation in the previously injured tooth. The researchers also observed a significant regeneration of dentin, which is the hard part of the tooth, as well as vascularization in the pulp, which led to healthy root development and increased circulation.
Researchers at the Salk Institute have developed a method to reprogram stem cells in skin ulcers and sores to differentiate into epithelial (skin) cells. The treatment advance has the potential to revolutionize treatment options for patients suffering from chronic skin conditions such as epidermolysis bullosa, ulcers and sores due to diabetes, bedsores and severe burns. Typically, there is an abundance of stem cells at the site of wounds such as ulcers. However, the stem cells prioritize dealing with inflammation and infection over the regeneration of skin tissue. The researchers sought to reprogram wound-resident mesenchymal stem cells in vivo [inside the body] by applying transduction factors, which directed the stem cells to generate skin tissue. Hence, the treatment is designed to generate new skin at the site of the wound as opposed to the current approach of utilizing a skin graft.
Doctors at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have developed a stem cell hydrogel designed to keep teeth alive following a root canal. This revolutionary, biological hydrogel is said to stimulate angiogenesis, which is the growth of blood vessels, and this key factor could help teeth remain both alive and more fortified, compared to a traditional root canal treatment. When patients require root canals, the decay inside the pulpal chamber and canals is cleared and replaced with gutta percha. This eliminates the infection, but also renders the tooth dead typically leading to the loss of the tooth entirely later on. The hydrogel, seeded with dental pulp stem cells and working in conjunction with the hydrogel’s promotion of angiogenesis, has the potential to repopulate the tooth with living, functioning dental pulp and restoring function to the tooth.
Researchers at Georgia Tech are investigating the efficacy of a stem cell infused hydrogel to facilitate the healing of muscular injuries, particularly common in elderly individuals as well as muscular dystrophy patients. The stem cells found in the hydrogel are called muscle satellite cells, and younger individuals have plentiful stores of these cells to actively and efficiently repair muscle injuries as soon as they happen. However, as individuals age, stem cells become less plentiful and less active, hence, for older individuals, recovery from muscle injuries becomes more protracted and less certain. For individuals with muscular dystrophy, muscle cells are under constant stress. The research seeks to improve on the more common approach of injecting the stem cells directly into the site of damaged muscle, by using the hydrogel to protect the stem cells and ensure that as many of them as possible reach the affected site thereby improving the efficacy of the treatment.
In a clinical study, researchers at Queen Mary University of London will utilize autologous stem cells to reboot the immune system of Crohn’s disease patients, with the aim of greatly alleviating the inflammation of the bowel thus significantly improving the patients’ quality of life. Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disorder in which portions of the bowel are attacked by the immune system leading to severe inflammation, malnutrition and debilitating abdominal pain. Though there is currently no effective cure, this stem cell treatment has shown promise in treating the erroneous attacks of the immune system on the bowel tissues. The treatment involves a stimulation of the bone marrow to release stem cells, which are then harvested, followed by an irradiation of the body to eliminate the malfunctioning immune system. The recovered healthy immune stem cells are then reinfused into the body to reboot the immune system and eliminate the inflammation of the bowels.
A City of Hope researchers are utilizing stem cells to understand the genetic mutations that occur in astrocytes, a type of neuron, as well as damage to the myelin sheath, which is integral to the development of ALS and Alzheimer’s. Stem cells were used to create a model of Alexander disease, which is a neurological disorder similar to ALS and Alzheimer’s in its pathology, part of which involves a genetic mutation that hinders the production of an adequate myelin sheath, a fatty membrane that covers neurons and expedites signal transduction. Using this technique, the researchers homed in on the CHI3L protein, which seems to be primarily responsible for neuroinflammation and stunted neuronal development, including an inadequate myelin sheath.
Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch are using autologous (the patient’s own) stem cells to successfully transplant entire lungs without the risk of rejection. In animal models, researchers obtained a lung from a donor and removed all blood and cells, leaving a lung scaffold. Then, they obtained autologous lung stem cells from the subject and seeded the lung scaffold so that the lung would be repopulated. This created a brand new lung for transplantation, comprised of cells that would not be rejected because they are the patient’s own. When implanted back into the body, the engineered lungs were able to grow and vascularize with no additional treatments or infusions. This protocol could potentially be expanded to provide life-saving organs for hundreds of thousands of patients waiting for organ transplants, which, besides the obvious shortage, still pose a risk of immune rejection.