News | 21 October 2020

Stem cells protect brain during preterm birth

New imaging technology accurately visualises brain injury

A specific type of stem cell can protect an important area of the brain from the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation during preterm birth. That is the conclusion of a recent preclinical study carried out by researchers at the Department of Paediatrics, Maastricht UMC+. The researchers have published their promising results in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, where they also describe a new MRI technique for detecting brain injury and the protective effects of stem cell therapy.

iStockSome 180,000 children are born in the Netherlands every year, with one in ten being premature. Preterm birth may be accompanied by a number of complications, especially in the event of oxygen deprivation, i.e. asphyxia. Birth asphyxia can lead to brain injury, sometimes with severe consequences such as spasticity, an intellectual disability or even death. To date, there is no treatment for brain injury in preterm infants; in fact, until recently it was difficult to detect it at all. Now, however, a new MRI technique, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), can identify the injured areas of the brain.

Protective stem cells
In their preclinical study, the Maastricht researchers used laboratory models to accurately simulate temporary oxygen deprivation during preterm birth. As in the case of preterm infants, oxygen deprivation caused damage to the cerebellum, an area of the brain that is involved in a number of important functions. Administering specific stem cells, known as multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs), protected the cerebellum against the harmful effects of asphyxia, however, mitigating the disruption of the cortical strata (grey matter) and structural changes in the nerve pathways (white matter). The new MRI technique was able to detect these therapeutic effects.

Step forward
'The stem cells have a neuroprotective effect,' says paediatrician and researcher Dr Reint Jellema. 'In addition to inhibiting inflammatory response, they can also promote tissue repair. Having MRI techniques that actually visualise this process is a huge step forward.' There is still no treatment for the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation in preterm infants, but Jellema hopes that stem cell therapy will change this. 'We are gathering more and more evidence for the effectiveness of this therapy. We're just one small step away from administering it in clinical trials.'