Metro/Graham Lanktree Dr. Bernard Thebaud will join the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research this fall to develop new stem cell therapies for premature babies and create clinical trials.

Doctors will soon treat a disease untreatable for the past 45 years and protect the lungs of premature babies and adults with lung disease using stem cells, says new research from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

“These cells know where to repair. There is huge potential for treatment,” said Dr. Bernard Thébaud, of his promising work published Tuesday in the medical journal Thorax. “Working at CHEO will allow us to complete the steps that will bring us to clinical studies.”

Over the past 50 years, when premature babies are delivered, they need to be kept on ventilators to help their developing lungs to breath. The problem is, the machines cause damage to their lungs in the form of bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) which they carry through life.

“They have to go to the hospital more often because they have breathing problems,” said Dr. Thébaud of the disease which afflicts 10,000 premature babies every year. “It could be a viral infection, or asthma-like symptoms and they may see their lungs aging quicker.”

Using rats as a model, Dr. Thébaud and his team of researchers were able to protect newborn rat lungs with an injection of a serum derived from stem cells from a human umbilical cord.

“These cells look at the mess, be it too much cell death or cell inflammation, and know exactly what to do,” he said. “I’m very excited about this. I truly believe this can become  a breakthrough. I don’t want to over promise, but the potential is there.”

Not only could the cells be used to treat the newborns, but adults with other lung diseases, including premature babies who are now grown up and facing the long-term affects of BPD.

The key now is to find the best way to administer the treatment and prepare for a pilot study with 20 human patients Dr. Thébaud hopes to have up and running in the next two years.

“Babies as premature as 24 weeks now survive, but this has raised new problems. Now we’re talking about quality of survival,” he said.

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