QUB researcher discovers revolutionary new stem cell procedure

  • Researchers at Queen's University Belfast have developed a new way to create large quantities of stem cells for stem cell therapies, and have discovered that the resulting stem cells could revolutionise treatment for a wide range of conditions.

    Some cell and tissue types in the human body don't regenerate easily when damaged by injury or diease, such as those in the heart, blood vessels, brain, or organs. The holy grail of this generation's medical technology has been in treating this damage with stem cells, special undifferentiated cells that can change to become any other type of cell, from heart and lung tissue to nerve tissue or bone.

    These cells can be harvested from embryos, but the big breakthrough in recent years has been a process that can turn a patient's own cells back into stem cells that can then be implanted in the affected tissue to repair it. Unlike a transplant of healthy tissue from a donor, the stem cells are the patient's own cells and won't provoke an immune response. Stem cell transplants have been successfully used to treat a wide variety of medical illnesses, but producing a large number of them quickly from a patient's own cells

    Researchers at Queen's University Belfast have now discovered a new way to quickly produce large quantities of stem cells from only a small blood sample, and demonstrated that their new stem cells have the ability to replace damaged cells in blood vessels. This could revolutionise the way certain vascular diseases are treated, reducing complications of heart attacks, kidney disease, and diabetic vascular complications that currently often lead to amputation. It could also help prevent blindness caused by vascular damage in the retina.

    The breakthrough discovery was that activating a gene known as Endothelial Specific Molecule 1 (ESM1) in the stem cells would improve the production and function of newly generating endothelial cells lining blood vessels. These are the cells that first become damaged in cardiovascular disease, and being able to replace them could prevent further complications of a number of diseases.

    The discovery was made as part of a joint research project between Queen’s University Belfast and King’s College London, with the Principal Investigator on the project being was Dr Andriana Margariti of the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast.

    Dr Margariti commented on the results of the research, saying: "Previously, this cell transformation process would have involved a skin biopsy, or large volumes of blood, which simply isn’t viable for many patients as it is a risky process which can take a long recovery time. This study focused on stem cells for vascular diseases but the same process can be used to produce stem cells for a number of organs, including the brain and kidneys, which has huge implications for the future of healthcare."

    Source: Queen's University Belfast, Full research paper

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