Stem cells have a role in what is called regenerative medicine, an area of medicine where the potential exists to completely heal damaged tissues and organs.
Being able to isolate sources of stem cells is not always easy and are laden with many technical difficulties – chief among them – identifying the stem cells.
In a novel new approach, scientists have been able to non-invasively collect a type of stem cell, called a progenitor cell, from the urine of premature neonates. Human kidneys complete their development by the 34th week of gestation.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (JASN), researchers examined freshly-voided urine specimens from one-day-old neonates born at 31–36 weeks of gestation. They were able to identify cell types in the urine using polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and discovered that the specimens contained progenitor cells (precursor cells that occur in fetal or adult tissues and are partially specialized).
Progenitor/precursor cells can replace cells that are damaged or dead, thus capable of maintaining the integrity and functions of a tissue such as liver, brain, or in this case – mature kidney cells.
When scientists co-cultured these cells with other kidney cells, the progenitor cells were able to protect regular kidney cells from apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the presence of a chemotherapeutic drug called cisplatin. Additionally, there were increased levels of genes that code for podocytes, structures that form a filtration barrier that prevent the loss of important proteins.
Undifferentiated cells are not present, or rarely present, in urine samples as the kidneys have undergone maturation.
“Therefore, we thought that urine of babies born prematurely would be a better alternative, because their kidneys are still under development,” according to Elena Levtchenko, MD, PhD and colleagues from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Belgium. “We collected urine of preterm neonates one day after birth and found that in 50 percent of the cases, the samples contained progenitor cells.”
Every neonatal ward in every hospital has been sitting atop a proverbial gold mine of stem cells. Hopefully, in lieu of discarding what previously would have been considered a waste product, we can collect what could be the answer to potentially preserving/restoring functionality to damaged kidneys and perhaps mitigate the tremendous need for kidney transplants.