Not cutting this cord

We'll cut to the chase: Although the phrase "cutting the cord" is used to symbolize freedom, it seems that researchers these days are coming back to the cord – in a search for cures for diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, cerebral palsy and more. A recent story in The Wall Street Journal, in fact, suggests that "researchers see new potential for using blood found in the umbilical cord of newborns to treat a range of diseases."

Dr. Timothy NelsonWriter Peter Loftus notes that this "stem-cell-rich blood" is already being used to treat "certain cancers and disorders of the blood," but researchers see potential for treating many more conditions, because it "can proliferate and generate more specialized cells." Of course, this optimism is tempered with that old research saw, "experts caution that more studies are needed" to determine the effectiveness of umbilical cord blood in treating these diseases.

More studies, that is, like the one underway at the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine under the direction of Tim Nelson, M.D., Ph.D. Loftus reports that Dr. Nelson and his team are "testing whether injecting cord-blood stem cells can help rebuild heart muscle in children born with a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome." HLHS, as it's known, is a complex and rare heart defect in which the left side of a newborn's heart is critically underdeveloped and can't effectively pump blood to the body.

Dr. Nelson and team are studying whether "injection of cord-blood stem cells can strengthen the right-side heart chamber" and improve its function, the Journal reports. "The stem cells are taken from the child's own cord blood, banked at birth. The hypothesis is that the stem cells could stimulate tissue repair in the heart."

Last summer, Mayo Clinic announced it was launching this first stem cell clinical trial for pediatric congenital heart disease in the United States, testing the safety and feasibility of delivering a "personalized cell-based therapy" into the hearts of 10 infants affected by the condition. The idea was to see if the stem cells will increase the volume and strength of the heart muscle to give it greater durability and power to pump blood throughout the body.

Current treatment for babies born with HLHS involves three heart surgeries to redirect blood flow through the heart or transplantation. And while the care these children receive has been continuously improving, "cardiac transplantation continues to be the limiting factor for far too many individuals," according to Dr. Nelson. "Applying stem cell-based regeneration may offer a viable solution to help these children develop new tissues and grow stronger hearts."

The WSJ article also talks with researchers who are studying the use of cord blood in other conditions at other institutions. You can find the whole thing here. Then be sure to share your comments below.