Stem cells prevent brain damage in prematurity (MUMC+ news)

New therapy should reduce severity of long-term disabilities

Researchers at Maastricht University Medical Center (Maastricht, Netherlands), Máxima Medical Center (Veldhoven, Netherlands) and Athersys Inc. (Cleveland, USA) have shown that stem cell therapy can prevent brain damage in premature infants. A lack of oxygen in a pre-term infant's vulnerable brain can lead to serious long-term disabilities. Until now, there has been no way to prevent severe congenital brain damage resulting from oxygen deprivation. The researchers in Maastricht hope that stem cell therapy will change that in future.

Every year, the Netherlands welcomes about 180,000 newborns. One in ten is born too early. In addition, during birth approximately one per cent of all babies suffer deprivation of oxygen (known as birth asphyxia). Birth asphyxia can lead to brain damage, sometimes with severe consequences such as spasticity and an intellectual disability. Premature birth is often associated with a greater risk of permanent brain damage. As many as two thirds of all surviving infants born in the 24th week of pregnancy are affected. In the case of full-term infants that suffer birth asphyxia, brain damage can be prevented by administering a cooling treatment (therapeutic hypothermia). That is not an option for premature infants, however, because the risks are unacceptably high.


Oxygen deprivation causes an inflammatory response in the brain. This response plays an important role in brain cell death. Stem cells are thought to have a neuroprotective capacity and anti-inflammatory properties. In their preclinical study, researchers in Maastricht tested specific stem cells, known as multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs), on pre-term sheep fetuses that had been subjected to oxygen deprivation. The sheep fetus brain is very similar to the human brain. “That’s why this animal model is also effective for preclinical trials, before going to clinical trials,” says lead researcher Reint Jellema, who is a resident in pediatrics at Maastricht University Medical Center. “After administering stem cells, we noticed a considerable reduction in inflammation factors, less damage to brain cells, and improved brain function.”

Clinical therapy

Stem cell therapy also reduced the number of seizures caused by oxygen deprivation. Such seizures are comparable to epileptic attacks and are a known symptom of oxygen deprivation. Seizure duration was also reduced. “Our study marks an important step towards clinical trials to evaluate this therapy,” says Jellema. “Ultimately, we hope that stem cell therapy will reduce the burden of severe long-term disabilities in children who experience oxygen deprivation at birth, so that they can go on to lead normal lives.”

The results of this study have been published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation. Reint Jellema also received his PhD for his study “Cell-based therapy for hypoxic-ischemic injury in the preterm brain”.

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