Stem cell therapy discovery brings lung disease treatment closer

A cutting-edge new treatment for a fatal lung disease is one step closer thanks to a discovery by Hudson Institute stem cell therapy researchers.

Associate Professor Rebecca Lim from the Amnion Cell Biology Research Group at Hudson Institute
A/Prof Rebecca Lim

This discovery, that stem cells derived from placentas from full term pregnancies are more effective at stimulating lung tissue repair, is an essential step towards regulatory approval for a new drug treatment which is in clinical trials for a range of diseases, say researchers Dr Dandan Zhu and Associate Professor Rebecca Lim.

New treatment for fatal lung disease idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

“Understanding the criteria for suitable placental cell donors takes us one step closer towards approval for a complex stem cell therapy which is being tested in clinical trials for lung and liver disease, stroke and Crohn’s disease,” said lead author A/Prof Rebecca Lim, Amnion Cell Biology Research Group Head at Hudson Institute.

What is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis?

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a lung disease which causes lung scarring and can be fatal. It affects about five million people globally, with the ageing population at highest risk. The average survival rate is just two to three years and, apart from a lung transplant, there are no effective treatments.

Dandan Zhu from the Amnion Cell Biology Research Group at Hudson Institute
Dr Dandan Zhu

Dr Zhu and A/Prof Lim are investigating ways that stem cells from the placenta – which surrounds a baby during pregnancy – can repair damaged lungs. These cells – called human amnion epithelial cells – have stem cell-like properties and can grow into many cell types. They have potent effects on inflammation and tissue damage.

Amnion cell clinical trials

The research, published in the journal Clinical Science, showed that amnion cells from the placentas of babies born full-term were more efficient at repairing damaged lung tissue compared to those from pre-term infants’ placentas.

“We have four ongoing clinical trials using healthy amnion cells from full-term placentas as a potential treatment for diseases including bronchopulmonary dysplasia (or BPD, a lung development disease in preterm babies), stroke, chronic liver diseases and perianal fistulas from Crohn’s disease,” said first author, Dr Zhu.

A/Prof Rebecca Lim's cell image showing confocal fluorescence microscopy of fibrotic mouse lungs.
Confocal fluorescence microscopy of fibrotic mouse lungs, focusing on the bronchioalveolar duct junctions where a population of lung stem cells reside.

“Our findings suggest that the health of the donor and whether the pregnancy was full or pre-term must be taken into consideration when banking donor stem cells – a practice which is becoming increasingly common from tissues such as the placenta or umbilical cord blood,” Dr Zhu said.

Optimising lung cell tissue repair

The research involved growing 3D miniature lungs – called organoids – in a dish in the lab. The organoids were grown to test the impact of amnion cells on lung tissue. Using organoids is a way to test treatments on human tissue to see if the therapeutics work before testing in patients.

The amnion cells from full-term placentas were better able to activate lung stem cells to repair tissue. “This is particularly important for elderly patients who have low stem cell numbers and are unable to generate new lung tissue,” Dr Zhu said.

What are amniotic epithelial cells?

Amniotic epithelial cells (amnion cells) are from the amniotic sac which surrounds a baby during pregnancy. They have stem cell-like properties and can grow into many cell types. Most importantly, they have potent effects on inflammation and tissue damage.

Collaborators
Monash University, Boston Children’s Hospital Harvard Medical School, Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Funding
NHMRC

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Research Group leading this work