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    Hope for the Future in the Umbilical Cord


    Umbilical cord blood has a great potential to heal many diseases. A new research cooperation examines how to grow as many stem cells as possible that are responsible for this effect. Initiator and spokesman of this cooperation is the Würzburg stem cell researcher Albrecht Müller. The Federal Government is funding the project with 1.2 million Euros.

    Even Mephisto knew: "Blood is a juice of very special kind." However, what Mephisto did not know: Umbilical cord blood even exhibits far more particularities. Obtained after the section of a newborn's umbilical cord and placenta, researchers find cells in the umbilical cord blood which might be able to fight numerous diseases. "With umbilical cord blood, we can systematically use the body's own regeneration potential for therapeutic approaches", Albrecht Müller says. Albrecht Müller is a professor at the "Institut für Medizinische Strahlenkunde und Zellforschung" (Institute of Medical Radiology and Cell Research) at the University of Würzburg and has been researching with stem cells for many years now – cells which can also be found in the umbilical cord blood. Their field of application is regenerative medicine. Whenever a disease is connected with the breakdown of cell, tissue or organ functions, stem cells might be able to compensate the loss – anyway, that is the hope of the medical scientists.

    Wanted: procedures for reproduction

    "In our research cooperation, we focus on blood stem cells from the umbilical cord", Albrecht Müller explains. These cells are the point of origin for the entire cell regeneration of the blood and the immune system. For example, they are used for the treatment of leukemia patients when their own hematopoietic system does not work correctly anymore. Müller and his colleagues are searching for procedures for an optimum growth of these stem cells. Such a procedure is required urgently for a large-scale application of the cells for therapeutic purposes. Because the quantity of umbilical cord blood is limited: With each birth, a quantity of only approximately 50 ml is provided – a quantity which normally is not sufficient to treat an adult.

    In the research cooperation, the researchers involved – cell biologists, geneticists, leukemia specialists and specialists for transplantation medicine from the RWTH Aachen University, the Hanover Medical School and the University of Würzburg – examine different methods with regard to their potential of growing blood stem cells.

    Four different approaches

    Müller and his colleagues from Würzburg address the issue whether the stem cell quantity can be increased by modifying the packaging of the genetic material inside a cell. Namely, the carrier of the cells' genetic material – the DNA – exists in different packaging conditions inside the cell nucleus. If a gene is not active, its packaging is firm and tight. This is the starting point for the researchers: "If we succeed in decelerating the molecular mechanism responsible for DNA packaging inside the nucleus, this could possibly increase the activity of stem cell genes so that the stem cell quantity will increase", Müller explains. For this, he and his team have developed a new method by means of which it is possible to determine the DNA packaging capacity in stem cells from the umbilical cord.

    Research teams at the other locations are searching for alternative methods for stem cell growth. This is one variant: Normally, blood stem cells in their normal condition are not isolated. "They are always closely linked to other cells which they nourish and the activity of which they control", Müller says. In the laboratory, this could be ensured by means of a specific carrier substance on the nanostructured surface of which the cells can grow eagerly. A second variant is based on a similar approach: Here, the controlling cells shall execute this function on their own in vitro. The third approach relies on the help of specific proteins: Here, so-called growth factors in novel combinations are applied which shall activate the stem cells.

    Safety first

    Still many questions have to be answered before the method can be applied in humans. One important aspect which needs to be clarified for this method is the issue of safety. "After all, we must not inject a patient with cells in which the conventional 'brakes' do not work any longer", Albrecht Müller explains. Otherwise, the cells would grow unobstructedly and thus cause just the disease which they were supposed to fight: leukemia. But even if at the end of the three-year funding research will not result in a therapy that can be applied in humans, Müller is convinced of the benefits of his work. From his point of view, the findings obtained during this time can help to understand processes that currently still are a mystery. And who knows: Perhaps this will offer the possibility to find an approach for new therapies.

    The research cooperation

    The research cooperation is called CB-HERMES – an abbreviation of Cord Blood-Hematopoietic Stem Cells: reliable methods for ex vivo expansion. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the research cooperation within the framework of its program called "Cell-based regenerative medicine".

    Contact: Prof. Dr. Albrecht Müller, T: +49 (0)931 201 45848, e-mail: albrecht.mueller@mail.uni-wuerzburg.de.

    By Gunnar Bartsch