EDMONTON - An international team headed by a University of Alberta researcher has used stem cells to heal and protect the lungs of newborn rats - research that could help premature babies with chronic lung disease.
Dr. Bernard Thebaud's team injected stem cells from bone marrow into the rats' airways. Two weeks later the rodents were running twice as far on treadmills and had better survival rates.
The stems cells acted like tiny damage control factories, pumping out a healing liquid that scientists are working to understand.
"That healing liquid seems to boost the power of healthy lung cells and helps them to repair the lungs," said Thebaud, who is also a specialist at Edmonton's Stollery Children's Hospital neonatal intensive care unit.
"The human implication is that we envision a stem cell-based treatment for these babies that suffer from chronic lung disease."
Babies who are born extremely prematurely can't breathe on their own and need help for their lungs to develop properly. About half of babies born before 28 weeks get chronic lung disease, a condition that can affect lung capacity as they grow up.
Thebaud and his team's findings are to be published Dec. 1 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine and are already attracting international attention. The team included researchers from Montreal, France and the U.S.
"I want to congratulate Dr. Thebaud and his team," said Dr. Roberta Ballard, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California. "In a few short years I anticipate we will be able to take these findings and begin clinical trials with premature babies."
Stem cells can develop into different cell types in the body. They can act as an internal repair system, dividing to replenish other cells.
The team, which is partly funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, is now looking at the longer-term safety of using stem cells for lung therapy. There is some concern that stem cells could transform into tumours because they have the potential to become any type of cell.
Researchers want to see if the rats show any signs of cancer after they are treated.
The team is also studying the healing liquid produced by the stem cells.
Thebaud said it may be possible to use that liquid on its own to repair and heal the lungs, making the injection of the cells unnecessary.
"Now the million-dollar question is 'What are (the cells) producing and can we harness that? can we use it as medication?"' he said. "We could take that fear out of the equation."
During the research project Thebaud said he spent many hours peering through his microscope at rat tissue and watching the rodents running on treadmills.
But the image in his mind was always of the premature babies he has treated with damaged lungs that are kept alive on ventilators.
"You see those rats running on the treadmill and you think of a kid who could be able to run with his peers, play soccer or hockey," he said. "That's what matters."