Treating sick and vulnerable babies

Could stem cells help brain damaged babies?

This research was completed on 6 November 2008

Published on 30 September 2005

More and more babies are surviving a very premature birth. But they face a higher risk of getting brain damage, which can bring lifelong suffering. Researchers are working towards a revolutionary new treatment, which could ultimately see a baby's own stem cells being transplanted into their brain to repair the damaged tissue.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Prematurity and brain damage

A baby's chance of surviving a very early birth is on the up. But many babies born before 32 weeks of pregnancy sadly suffer some form of brain damage, which can affect them for the rest of their lives. Doctors have no means to treat brain damaged babies Little can be done to help tiny, premature babies as they battle against the effects of brain damage.

Doctors have no means to treat them and the brain cannot repair itself very well.

Pharmaceutical companies shy away from tackling diseases of the new-born, largely because of the financial burden of any potential litigation. So the responsibility of funding research in this area falls to the public sector and dedicated charities like Action Medical Research.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Could transplanting stem cells help repair brain injury?

Brain damage results from the death of cells within the brain. These researchers aim to find out whether it seems feasible to transplant special cells, called stem cells, into the brain to replace cells lost through injury. Stem cells have two very important characteristics. Firstly, they can keep dividing to replenish themselves. And, secondly, they can change into a more specialised cell, such as a brain cell. The project team recently identified a population of stem cells in the bloodstream of human fetuses that could, perhaps, be used in transplants. In this project, they aim to test the stem cells' potential using established models of brain damage.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr H Mehmet
Project team
  • Professor Richard Reynolds, PhD
  • Dr Deanna Taylor, PhD
LocationFaculty of Medicine, Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College, London
DurationThree years
Grant awarded30 June 2005
Start date7 November 2005
End date6 November 2008
Grant amount£139,065.00
Grant codeSP4053

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Over the years, researchers at Imperial College's Institute of Reproductive & Developmental Biology have been at the forefront of research into brain damage in babies. They have endeavoured to understand the mechanisms underlying the death of fetal brain cells. The project leader, Dr Huseyin Mehmet, is an international authority on both the mechanisms of brain damage in babies and clinical attempts to repair the developing brain. He has published widely, in both journals and books, and is regularly invited to give lectures at meetings around the world. More recently he has made a number of media appearances in both national newspapers and on TV. Professor Richard Reynolds is Professor of Cellular Neurobiology, Director of the UK Multiple Sclerosis Tissue Bank and Head of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience at Imperial College.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

New hope for brain damaged babies

The ultimate aim of the researchers working on this project is to find a way to treat babies who have brain damage. Many babies, especially those born very prematurely, stand to benefit. Sadly, babies born very early are at increased risk of suffering brain damage. This can lead to physical, psychological or intellectual problems. Some babies are so badly affected they need life-long care. Researchers are in the early laboratory stages of their work. Eventually, they hope to repair brain damage in babies by isolating stem cells from a baby's bloodstream during pregnancy, growing more cells in the laboratory, and then transplanting the baby's own cells back into the brain after birth.

Possible benefits for multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease

It's possible this revolutionary approach could also help in the search for new treatments for adults with degenerative brain diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease.