Researchers have received €9 million (AUD $14.7 million) in funding to look into preterm births and stem cell research to understand if stem cells can be used to regenerate brain damage caused by premature birth.
1 in 10 babies in Australia is born preterm (earlier than 37 weeks) every year, with more than 15 million babies born preterm worldwide. Because of this, they are at risk of long-term disability due to brain damage which is why a new stem cell therapy is being researched.
The new therapy is being developed by a group of researchers from across the globe, including the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT) and the Cerebral Palsy Research Institute in Australia.
Disturbances in the brain’s growth, such as through premature birth, can result in cerebral palsy, severely impaired cognitive functions and disorders such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The researchers are looking at trying to ‘rebuild’ the damaged areas of the brain. Scientists will use human mesenchymal stem cells (H-MSC) which are taken from umbilical cord tissue and are different from human embryonic stem cells (hESC).
Senior Stem Cell Research Fellow at Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Institute Megan Finch-Edmondson says that the research is important as there are currently no available treatments to repair the brain following premature birth.
She adds “...stem cells offer great promise as a potential treatment for a variety of neurological conditions...it is important to test whether stem cells might be helpful in improving outcomes for this most vulnerable group of premature babies.”
REMSTEM Project Coordinator, Professor Pierre Gressens, says the five-year project will see a therapy ready for clinical trials.
“We’ll be examining the best regiment, timing, dose and administration route for H-MSC as therapy for this specific type of brain injury.”
The research will also develop tools to assist with identifying those that require treatment for Encephalopathy, a disease that damages your brain, caused by prematurity.
Professor Gressens says, “we’ll also develop new, inexpensive and easy-to-use imaging tools that will give clinicians, for the first time, the ability to [quickly] identify premature born babies needing our treatment.”
The therapy and research outcomes will be able to be used to treat other types of brain injury.
Ms Finch-Edmondson says “there is much overlap between brain injury following premature birth and other neurological conditions such as stroke, traumatic brain injury as well as neurodegenerative conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.”
“It is likely that new information learned from this research may be helpful for developing stem cell treatments for a variety of other neurological conditions, many of which currently lack any effective treatments.”
The European research project called PREMSTEM received funding from the European Union’s prestigious Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme.
PREMSTEM, which officially started this month, has fifteen partners from eight countries and involves world-leading clinicians, researchers and healthcare organisations specialised in neonatology in both Europe and Australia.
Ms Finch-Edmondson says the collaborative research effort is essential as “this partnership will help to make stem cell treatment a reality, ultimately resulting in better outcomes for premature babies, their families and society.”