The human placenta represents a rich source of stem cells that are easily accessible and do not have the limitations and ethical concerns associated with the potential clinical use of embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Scientists in The Ritchie Centre have harvested epithelial stem cells from the amnion, the inner of two membranes encasing the amniotic fluid in which the fetus is suspended during gestation. They have shown that human Amnion Epithelial Cells (hAECs), obtained at term elective caesarean section, display key features of pluripotent stem cells.
These cells are capable of self renewal and retain considerable plasticity; differentiating in vitro into lineages derived from each of the three primary germ layers, neuro-ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm. They do not form teratomas after transplantation into the testes of immunodeficient mice, they have restricted expression of major histocompatibility antigens and they suppress lymphocyte proliferation. These cells can also be differentiated into lung epithelial and neural cells and, once differentiated down the lung lineage, express the membrane transporter that is absent in cystic fibrosis patients.
In pre-clinical studies, we are investigating the use of hAECs for their potential clinical application in the treatment of adult and perinatal lung and brain injury and diseases. This work is supported by the Cerebral Palsy Alliance. Clinical trials on the use of hAECs in the treatment of lung injury in very premature babies are about to commence. In addition, cells derived from cord blood, taken at delivery, have been purported to be effective in the treatment of cerebral palsy as stem cell treatment soon after birth is believed to promote the growth of blood vessels in the brain leading to tissue regeneration. The efficacy of cord blood derived cells in the treatment of birth hypoxia, a common cause of cerebral palsy, is currently being studied by the group.
Together with Cell Care Australia and Monash Health, a trial is proposed, pending appropriate approvals, to investigate the impact of cord blood infusion on children diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The proposed Monash based trial will monitor the motor and cognitive skills of the children before and after treatment and check for signs of improvement following the infusion of cord blood.