Researchers at the University of Minnesota have, for the first time, coaxed umbilical cord blood stem cells to differentiate into a type of lung cell.
The cord blood cells differentiated into a type of lung cell called type II alveolar cells. These cells are responsible for secreting surfactant, a substance that allows the air sacs in the lungs to remain open, allowing air to move in and out of the sacs. The cells are also responsible for helping to repair the airway after injury.
“In the future, we may be able to examine cord blood from babies who have lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, to do more research to understand how these diseases evolve as well as to develop better medical treatments,” said David McKenna, MD, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and pathology and medical director of the Clinical Cell Therapy Lab at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.
The research paper is currently available online, and will be published in the Nov. 7, 2006, issue of the journal Cytotherapy.
Type II alveolar cells develop late in fetal development, which is why some premature babies are born with underdeveloped lungs. The cells and the air sacs as a whole continue to mature and develop through a child’s first few years of life.
Now the researchers will try to better characterize the cells, so that in the future, the cells could be used as a research tool to better understand lung development and disease. The cells may also be useful as a way to test potential new drugs.