New stem cell discovery could cure heart defects

Stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood have been used to create early versions of laboratory-grown heart valves.

This is the latest breakthrough in medical research using umbilical cord blood, which has been championed as an ethical alternative to taking stem cells from embryos.

The scientists responsible are confident that with improvements they can use cord blood stem cells to provide perfectly matched replacement heart valves for infants with heart defects.

Experts say it is often impossible to repair malfunctioning heart valves in newborn babies and currently replacements can only be obtained from human or animal donors, or made from artificial material.

Ralf Sodian, whose team at University Hospital Munich made the discovery says: “The problem is if you have to do surgery on a child you have a relatively small heart valve and the child grows out of it, which means you have to do surgery many times”.

He explained: “The basic idea is to implant something living, functional from [the child’s] own cells which will integrate into the surrounding tissue with the potential to grow”.

Dr Sodian says that the research has shown it is possible to do this using stem cells taken from the child’s own umbilical cord blood.

So far, over 70 medical treatments have been developed from ethical stem cell sources like umbilical cord blood.

Taking stem cells from human embryos destroys the embryos and has yet to yield any clinical treatments.

The Government was criticised over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which liberalises the law regulating the use of embryos in research.

A leading adult stem cell scientist recently moved his research to a university in France because of the UK’s funding bias towards embryonic research.

Earlier this year, David Burrowes MP introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill calling for the collection of umbilical cord blood to become routine practice.

He said at the time: “The question that this Bill raises is why are we routinely disregarding the proven life saving value of umbilical cord blood but legislating and investing predominantly in the unproven and ethically challenging route of embryonic research.

“Given that in the foreseeable future we will depend on non embryonic stem cell therapies, why are we putting literally most of our eggs in one basket?”