Using stem cells to prevent brain damage in very preterm babies

Australian researchers have conducted the first attempts to collect umbilical cord blood cells from very preterm babies, with a view to using them to reduce their increased risk of brain injury and disability.

The trial was conducted at Monash Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Australia, led by Dr Lindsay Zhou, under the supervision of Professor Atul Malhotra, Co-Director of the Newborn Cell Therapies Group from the Department of Paediatrics at Monash University and published recently in the journal Cytotherapy.

Cord blood is the blood left in the umbilical cord and placenta of newborn babies after birth. It is rich in stem cells which can be used to help protect, repair and grow cells in the body, and according to Dr Zhou these cells have shown strong promise as a treatment for neonatal brain injury in pre-clinical models and early-phase clinical trials. “While it has been tested in infants born at term, these life-giving cells have not been tested in preterm babies, who arguably have the greatest need for new treatments because their risk of brain injury and disability later in life is so much greater,” he said.

The researchers, who are also from The Ritchie Centre at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research, took cord blood from 38 infants born before 28 weeks gestation. Babies born extremely preterm (<28 weeks) have a high chance of long-term developmental issues, including cerebral palsy, and learning and behavioural issues.

Of the babies included in the trial, 21 were male and 17 female. Twenty-four (63.1%) were delivered via caesarean section, and 11 (28.9%) were a multiple birth. The average age of the baby in this study was 26 weeks gestation, and the average birth weight was 761.5 grams.

The researchers were able to collect an average of 19 ml/kg of cord blood from these preterm babies, which is similar to term babies by body weight. The procedure was successful in 72% of cases. According to Professor Malhotra, these findings are important “because we have shown we can collect these cells in extremely small babies, and can now use them in the CORD-SAFE study currently underway at the Monash Children’s Hospital.”

The CORD SAFE study is investigating the feasibility and safety of administering autologous (their own) cord blood cells to these extremely premature infants. The study is nearing completion phase, with results likely by the end of the year.

Read the full paper in Cytotherapy journal titled: Feasibility of cord blood collection for autologous cell therapy applications in extremely preterm infants.

DOI: 10.1016/j.jcyt.2023.01.001

About Monash University

Monash University is Australia’s largest university with more than 80,000 students. In the 60 years since its foundation, it has developed a reputation for world-leading high-impact research, quality teaching, and inspiring innovation.

With four campuses in Australia and a presence in Malaysia, China, India, Indonesia and Italy, it is one of the most internationalised Australian universities.

As a leading international medical research university with the largest medical faculty in Australia and integration with leading Australian teaching hospitals, we consistently rank in the top 50 universities worldwide for clinical, pre-clinical and health sciences.

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