Pregnant women’s stem cells could treat osteoporosis, say scientists

Stem cell infusions could treat babies affected with rare bone conditions, as well as older people – and even astronauts who lose bone mass in orbit

Pregnant women's stem cells could treat osteoporosis, say scientists
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If the treatment is found to be effective, it could be given to affected babies at birth, or even while they are still in the womb, to help them develop healthier skeletons.
Photograph: Stocktrek/Alamy

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This article titled “Pregnant women’s stem cells could treat osteoporosis, say scientists” was written by Ian Sample Science editor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 20th December 2016 10.00 UTC

People with fragile bones could have their skeletons beefed up with infusions of stem cells harvested from pregnant women, researchers say.

Scientists proposed the unusual therapy after studies showed that the treatment led to 78% fewer fractures in animals that were bred to have a brittle bone disorder.

The finding has raised hopes for treating rare bone conditions that affect some babies from birth, but the same procedure has the potential to help older people with osteoporosis, and even astronauts who lose bone mass in orbit, the researchers said.

“The stem cells we’ve used are excellent at protecting bones,” said Pascale Guillot, who led the study at University College London. “The bones become much stronger and the way the bone is organised internally is of much higher quality.”

Osteoporosis affects more than three million people in Britain alone, and the estimated costs of fractures reaches billions of pounds a year. Brittle bone disease is rare in newborns, but the 70 UK babies born with the condition each year can suffer fractures even before they leave the womb.

In a series of experiments, Guillot set out to investigate whether stem cells collected from human amniotic fluid could help strengthen weak bones in mice. She found that infusions of the cells did just that, but not by forming fresh bone themselves. Instead, the stem cells released growth factors that made existing bone cells in the mice multiply and mature more effectively.

“The discovery could have a profound effect on the lives of patients who have fragile bones and could stop a large number of their painful fractures,” Guillot said.

The stem cells used in the study had been shed by babies into the amniotic fluid. These very young stem cells are thought to be more potent that stem cells collected from adults. Guillot said that the cells could be collected for future treatments when pregnant women have tests on their amniotic fluid, and even when doctors induce water breaking prior to childbirth. “You can collect the fluid and isolate the cells from it,” Guillot said.

The researchers hope to start a clinical trial in humans in the next two years. If the treatment is found to be effective, it could be given to affected babies at birth, or even while they are still in the womb, to help them develop healthier skeletons. Unlike other tissues, the stem cells used in the study can be transplanted from one person to another without having to match the recipient and donor.

The UCL scientists are not the first to show how stem cells can strengthen ailing bones. Earlier this year, researchers in Toronto infused stem cells from healthy mice into others with osteoporosis. Not only did the recipient animals grow stronger skeletons, but their bones regained the healthy coral-like appearance that osteoporosis destroys.

In the longer term, scientists aim to identify the crucial chemicals that stem cells release to beef up bone formation. “We could inject these factors into older people, or into astronauts, to give bone forming cells a boost,” Guillot added. The research is published in the journal, Scientific Reports.

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