Radboud university medical center is participating in a major European study into the treatment of brain damage in premature babies. Is it possible to limit or even partly repair the damage with stem cells? Radboud university medical center focuses primarily on the effect of those stem cells on the immune system.
Approximately eight percent of babies in the Netherlands are born prematurely, i.e., before the 37th week of pregnancy. After a premature birth, the baby's brain is still immature and vulnerable, placing the baby at high risk for brain damage. Brain damage also occurs due to a lack of oxygen before, during or after birth, which is the case for 1 in 350 babies in the Netherlands. In life, this brain damage can have far-reaching consequences, such as intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior, emotion and motor skills. There is no treatment available yet to counteract this brain damage.
Stem cells against brain damage
A European consortium led by the French Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) will now investigate whether the administration of specific stem cells (mesenchymal stem cells) offers prospects. Radboud university medical center's Department of Laboratory Medicine, Laboratory of Medical Immunology, participates in this significant PREMSTEM research, which has received a total subsidy of more than 9 million euros from the European Union. Irma Joosten, theme Inflammatory diseases: “There are indications that these stem cells can not only repair brain tissue but can also dampen the activity of the immune system. By adjusting the immune system, the damage to the brain may also be limited."
Flexible immune system
In this project, the Laboratory Medicine department, Laboratory of Medical Immunology of the Radboud university medical center does not focus so much on the recovery (regeneration) of brain cells; it will primarily map the dynamics and flexibility of the immune system that result from the administration of stem cells. Medical immunologist Renate van der Molen, project leader, theme Inflammatory diseases: “We specialize in reproductive immunology. Remarkable things happen in the period around the pregnancy. A pregnant woman has an adapted immune system. If not, the child - that consists in part of material of the father - would be rejected, because the material is considered partly foreign to the body. However, it is usually not rejected because the immune system is locally adjusted. This allows the child to grow in the womb for nine months. If something goes wrong in those immunological processes, premature birth can occur. We try very accurately to map the changes and dynamics of the immune system during that period. How does the local immune system in the uterus change, which factors affect it, that sort of thing."
"In this major European project, we are looking very specifically at the changes in the immune system when those mesenchymal stem cells are administered," says Joosten. "We do this in culture trays with human cells, but also in a sheep model for premature birth, for which we are collaborating with the Maastricht UMC, another partner in the project. We also hope to gain more insight into the mechanism of immune regulation during pregnancy, and the eventual prevention of premature birth.
The other partners in the research consortium are UMC Utrecht, Maastricht UMC, Universitätsklinikum Essen, Göteborgs Universitet, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (Rome), Université de Genève, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University (Australia and Spain), Iconeus (France) and CHIESI Farmaceutici SPA (Italy), the European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants (EFCNI) in Germany, and the Cerebral Palsy Alliance (Australia).
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