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Revolutionary stem cell therapy boosts body’s ability to heal itself

British researchers hope treatment will help repair heart attack damage or broken bones
By Ian Sample, science correspondent, guardian.co.uk

A stem cell emerging from rat bone marrow. By stimulating the release of stem cells after a heart attack, the healing process could be accelerated. Photograph: Imperial College London

A stem cell emerging from rat bone marrow. By stimulating the release of stem cells after a heart attack, the healing process could be accelerated. Photograph: Imperial College London

A groundbreaking medical treatment that could dramatically enhance the body’s ability to repair itself has been developed by a team of British researchers.

The therapy, which makes the body release a flood of stem cells into the bloodstream, is designed to heal serious tissue damage caused by heart attacks and even repair broken bones. It is expected to enter animal trials later this year and if successful will mark a major step towards the ultimate goal of using patients’ own stem cells to regenerate damaged and diseased organs.
‘This would allow bodies to heal themselves’ Link to this audio

When the body is injured, bone marrow releases stem cells that home in on the damaged area. When they arrive, they start to grow into new tissues, such as heart cells, blood vessels, bone and cartilage.

Scientists already know how to make bone marrow release a type of stem cell that can only make fresh blood cells. The technique is used to collect cells from bone marrow donors to treat people with the blood cancer leukaemia.

Now a team led by Sara Rankin at Imperial College London has discovered a way to stimulate bone marrow to release two other types of stem cell, which between them can repair bone, blood vessels and cartilage. Giving mice a drug called mozobil and a naturally occuring growth factor called VEGF boosted stem cell counts in their bloodstream more than 100-fold.

“This has huge and broad implications. It’s an untapped process,” said Rankin, whose study appears in the US journal Cell Stem Cell. “Suppose a person comes in to hospital having had a heart attack. You give them these drugs and stem cells are quickly released into the blood. We know they will naturally home in on areas of damage, so if you’ve got a broken bone, or you’ve had a heart attack, the stem cells will go there. In response to a heart attack, you’d accelerate the repair process.”