Need to Know: Regenerative medicine

How cord blood, stem cells and progenitor cells are the next frontier of innovative therapies.

In this week’s “TechKnow,” we meet baby Grace, who is part of an innovative FDA study that uses her umbilical cord blood—banked after her birth—to help treat hydrocephalus, a condition that causes swelling of the brain. It’s part of a movement towards “regenerative medicine” that sounds like sci-fi but is grounded in decades of research.

“I personally believe that cell therapy and regenerative medicine are going to be the next big advance in medicine,” says Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, head of Duke University’s Pediatric Blood Program. “Cells like [those found in] cord blood are going to drive that pull. I really think we are at the tip of the iceberg.”

Dr. K, as she’s known at Duke, walked us through what you need to know about harvesting stem cells from cord blood, and how one type—progenitor cells—could truly revolutionize treatments.

There are about 253 million cells in the cord blood that was frozen after Grace’s birth.

The blood bag is taken from where it’s been stored in a liquid nitrogen freezer, gently defrosted in a water bath, and meticulously prepared at the lab during a 90-minute process.

“We typically get 3 to 5 ounces of blood,” Kurtzberg explains. "Only a small fraction of those cells are the important cells for the therapy.”

“There are probably only 20 real stem cells in the whole cord blood collection, and we don’t know what they look like—they are hiding out. We know that they are in there, and we know that when we get the whole unit back, they will be contained in the other cells, but we don’t know how to pull them out and find them and just use them alone for therapy.”

“Besides those 20 or so stem cells, there are probably hundreds of thousands of what we call progenitor cells. They are cells that have already made the decision to be one type of cell, be it a liver cell, or heart cell, or muscle cell, or an eyelid cell, or a blood cell, or a lung cell or a brain cell. When we infuse progenitor cells back into the patient, they go back to the damaged organs and do the real job of helping repair those organs.”


Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.


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