Researchers have developed a technology that will allow obtaining large amounts of stem cells from just a few milliliters of blood in a short time. Scientists have also found that the resulting stem cells can create new and replace damaged cells within blood vessels. This technique will help prevent a number of vascular diseases, including heart attacks, kidney disease, blindness, and amputations in people with diabetes.
Principal Investigator, Dr. Andriana Margariti from the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, explains: “Being able to produce large quantities of stem cells from a few millilitres of blood in a short timeframe is truly ground-breaking. This could revolutionise how we treat a vast number of blood vessel diseases.”
“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.”
The researchers also found that the activation of a specific gene, known as the Endothelial Specific Molecule 1 (ESM1) in stem cells, can stimulate the production and functioning of new endothelial cells that play a key role in a number of vascular diseases.
Endothelial cells line the blood vessels and acting as a regulatory and protective barriers. However, in diseases of the cardiovascular system endothelial function is violated.
As a result of endothelial dysfunction, patients with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, blindness, and poor circulation.
Dr. Margariti explains: “A major source of mortality among those with cardiovascular diseases, and especially patients with diabetes, is due to irreversible damage to their endothelial cells which can lead to blockage of blood flow to the heart, eyes, kidney and limbs.”
“One in every two people with diabetes will die from a heart attack. Current treatment for diabetes is often limited to drugs that regulate sugars and fats in the blood, and hypertension, but unless the endothelial cells are repaired, unfortunately, the illness will continue to progress.”
A preclinical study, the results of which are published in Stem Cells, showed that stem cells expressing the ESM1 gene have significant regenerative potential and significantly increase blood flow when tested in damaged blood vessels.
The main principle of cell therapy is that damaged tissues and organs can be restored with the help of transplantation of healthy stem cells.
Professor Alan Stitt, Dean of Innovation and Education at Queen’s University Belfast and co-author explained: “Through the technology developed, we can readily produce stem cells to transplant to damaged blood vessels. We have discovered that activating the particular gene ESM1 will improve the production and function of endothelial cells, reversing the damaged cells. This is life-changing as the results have shown that repairing these cells can stop the progressive illnesses, which will prevent blindness and amputations.”
“Cell transplantation has huge potential though it is not suitable for all vascular diseases such as coronary disease. Now we know how to generate and improve the function of these cells, we will focus on screening drugs to see which treatments will further improve the function of these cells and ultimately improve the lives of millions of people afflicted with these illnesses.”