A groundbreaking medical treatment that could dramatically enhance the body’s ability to repair itself has been developed by a team of British researchers.
The therapy, which makes the body release a flood of stem cells into the bloodstream, is designed to heal serious tissue damage caused by heart attacks and even repair broken bones. It is expected to enter animal trials later this year and if successful will mark a major step towards the ultimate goal of using patients’ own stem cells to regenerate damaged and diseased organs.
When the body is injured, bone marrow releases stem cells that home in on the damaged area. When they arrive, they start to grow into new tissues, such as heart cells, blood vessels, bone and cartilage.
Scientists already know how to make bone marrow release a type of stem cell that can only make fresh blood cells. The technique is used to collect cells from bone marrow donors to treat people with the blood cancer leukaemia.
Now a team led by Sara Rankin at Imperial College London has discovered a way to stimulate bone marrow to release two other types of stem cell, which between them can repair bone, blood vessels and cartilage. Giving mice a drug called mozobil and a naturally occuring growth factor called VEGF boosted stem cell counts in their bloodstream more than 100-fold.
“This has huge and broad implications. It’s an untapped process,” said Rankin, whose study appears in the US journal Cell Stem Cell. “Suppose a person comes in to hospital having had a heart attack. You give them these drugs and stem cells are quickly released into the blood. We know they will naturally home in on areas of damage, so if you’ve got a broken bone, or you’ve had a heart attack, the stem cells will go there. In response to a heart attack, you’d accelerate the repair process.”
Rankin likens the body’s natural repair mechanism to a village with a single fire engine. When a fire breaks out, the engine makes its way there and starts to hose it down. “What we’re doing is sending signals to the fire station to release a hundred more fire engines, so the impact is much greater,” she said.
Rankin added: “The body repairs itself all the time. We know that the skin heals over when we cut ourselves and, similarly, inside the body there are stem cells patrolling around and carrying out repair where it’s needed. However, when the damage is severe, there’s a limit to what the body can do.
“We could potentially call up extra numbers of whichever stem cells the body needs, in order to boost its ability to mend itself and accelerate the repair process.”