Researchers in Belfast have made a discovery in relation to stem cells, which could have a major impact on the treatment of vascular diseases, including diabetes-related complications such as blindness.
Stem cells are body cells that can multiply and generate into specialised cells in the body. This offers researchers great potential in seeking treatments for a wide range of illnesses.
The researchers at Queen's University Belfast have developed technology capable of producing large quantities of stem cells in a short time, using only a small sample of blood. They have also found that these stem cells can generate and replace damaged cells within blood vessels.
This could prevent a number of vascular-related complications, such as heart attacks and kidney disease, as well as diabetes-related complications such as blindness and amputation.
"Being able to produce large quantities of stem cells from a few millilitres of blood in a short timeframe is truly groundbreaking. This could revolutionise how we treat a vast number of blood vessel diseases," commented the study's principal investigator, Dr Andriana Margariti, of Queen's University.
She explained that previously, this cell transformation process would have involved large volumes of blood or a skin biopsy, ‘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," Dr Margariti insisted.
Working with a team from King's College London, the Queen's researchers also discovered that activating a particular gene known as endothelial specific molecule 1 (ESM1) in the stem cells could enhance the production and function of newly generating endothelial cells, which have a key role in a number of vascular diseases.
Endothelial cells line the blood vessels, acting as a protective barrier. As the top layer of cells in the blood vessels, it is these cells that become seriously damaged in cardiovascular disease, and this is often accelerated in patients with diabetes.
Those with cardiovascular disease and diabetes are more likely to suffer from poor circulation, heart attacks, and blindness because their endothelial cells are damaged.
"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, kidneys 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," Dr Margariti noted.
A pre-clinical study found that stem cells expressing the ESM1 gene have a strong regenerative potential, significantly increasing the blood flow when they were tested in blood vessels that were damaged.
"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," explained the study's co-author, Prof Alan Stitt, of Queen's University.
The researchers noted that cell transplantation is not suitable for all vascular diseases, however they added that it has ‘huge potential'.
"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," Prof Stitt added.
Details of these findings are published in Stem Cells Journals.
*Picture of stem cell courtesy of Queen's University Belfast
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