Animal and human umbilical cord matrix cells exhibit the tell-tale characteristics of all stem cells, the capacity to self-renew and to differentiate into multiple cell types.
Researchers Kathy Mitchell, Deryl Troyer, and Mark Weiss of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Duane Davis of the College of Agriculture carried out the studies.
The cells--called cord matrix stem cells to distinguish them from cord blood cells--can be obtained in a non-invasive manner from an abundant source of tissue that is typically discarded.
According to Weiss and Troyer, "Umbilical cord matrix cells could provide the scientific and medical research community with a non-controversial and easily attainable source of stem cells for developing treatments for Parkinson's disease, stroke, spinal cord injuries, cancers and other conditions."
A paper, "Matrix cells from Wharton's jelly form neurons and glia," appears Jan. 16 in the on-line version of the journal "Stem Cells."
Among the findings: Wharton's jelly cells from pigs were propagated in the lab for more than a year without losing potency; they can be stored cryogenically and engineered to express foreign proteins.
The cells exhibit telomerase activity, a key indicator of stem cells, and they can be induced to form nerve cells, both neurons and glia, that produce a range of nerve-cell specific traits. Neurons are the nervous system cells that transmit signals; glial cells support the neurons.
On the basis of the encouraging results with animal tissue, the team broadened its investigations to human umbilical cord matrix cells with similar exciting findings--human umbilical cord matrix cells differentiate into neurons, too.
Most of the promise of developing embryonic stem cell-based therapies for treating several degenerative diseases of the nervous system as well as other types of disease is hindered by the controversial nature of the cell sources. Research progress has also been slowed by having a limited number of existing embryonic stem cell lines available for federally-funded medical research.
"Identifying a non-controversial source of primitive stem cells is a step in the right direction," Davis said.
Wharton's jelly, discovered in the mid-1600s by Thomas Wharton, a London physician, is the gelatinous connective tissue only found in the umbilical cord. The jelly gives the cord resiliency and pliability, and protects the blood vessels in the umbilical cord from compression.
As an embryo forms, some very primitive cells migrate between the region where the umbilical cord forms and the embryo. Some primitive cells just might remain in the matrix later in gestation or still be there even after the baby is born.
The K-State research team suggests that Wharton's jelly might be a reservoir of the primitive stem cells that form soon after the egg is fertilized.
Mitchell said, "Our results indicate that Wharton's jelly cells can be expanded in vitro, maintained in culture and induced to differentiate into neural cells. We think these cells can serve many therapeutic and biotechnological roles in the future."
The team now is evaluating human umbilical cord matrix cells to see if in addition to forming nerve tissues the cells also will differentiate into cardiac muscle and the cells that line the blood vessels.
They note that important progress is being made in the Weiss and Troyer labs where the researchers are looking at the ability of the umbilical cord matrix cells to form new neurons in the brain in an animal model of Parkinson's disease.
The KSU Research Foundation has filed for U.S. patent protection for the recent discoveries, the method of culturing the stem cells, and a kit for salvaging umbilical cord stem cells after birth.