Extracellular Vesicles to Protect Lungs and Brain in Premature Birth

Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital in Canada have been investigating the potential of extracellular vesicles that are derived from umbilical cord mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) to protect the lungs and brain in very premature babies. Such babies require supplemental oxygen, but this can damage their lungs, causing a condition called bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD).

In the meantime their brains are also at risk because of low oxygen. These researchers have been investigating the potential of MSCs to help protect and regenerate such tissues, and a recent study in mice suggests that extracellular vesicles from such cells could provide therapeutic benefit. The technique could be invaluable, as the vesicles are much easier to administer, store, and manufacture.

Mesenchymal stromal cells, also known as mesenchymal stem cells, have significant therapeutic potential. Despite this, clinicians and researchers have yet to convert this potential into mainstream clinical treatments.

Part of the issues lies in the fact that such cells are delicate, living structures, and require careful handling and maintenance to keep them alive and maintain their ability to provide therapeutic benefits. Other practical considerations have hampered cell therapies, since the cells are not easily obtained or stored, reducing their usefulness for routine treatments.

Happily, the cells release nano-sized extracellular vesicles that are easier to handle and store and may also have therapeutic potential. Interestingly, they can also cross the blood brain barrier, unlike MSCs, and so may have potential in treating issues in the brain. In this latest study, researchers based at the Ottawa Hospital have tested their potential in a mouse model of BPD, a chronic lung disease affecting very premature babies.

In a cruel irony, the oxygen used to treat premature babies can end up injuring their lungs, leading to BPD. Meanwhile, a lack of oxygen getting to the brain can result in developmental issues.

In this new study, the researchers investigated if MSC-derived extracellular vesicles could alleviate both issues in mice with simulated BPD. Excitingly, the extracellular vesicles acted to prevent both lung and brain injury.

“A therapy that improves lung and brain health would immensely benefit preterm babies with this chronic lung disease,” said Bernard Thébaud, a researcher involved in the study.

The Ottawa team is currently performing a clinical study investigating the use of MSCs in preterm babies, and given the positive results of the current study, they hope to also test MSC-derived extracellular vesicles in this context.

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