Using stem cells to improve the lives of babies with a serious bowel disorder | Action Medical Research

Using stem cells to improve the lives of babies with a serious bowel disorder

7 July 2011

A Liverpool children’s doctor is hoping his pioneering stem cell research will help improve the lives of babies with a life-threatening bowel condition, after being awarded £139,980 as a two-year Research Training Fellowship from children’s charity Action Medical Research.

Around one in every 5,000 babies born in the UK has a serious bowel disorder called Hirschsprung’s disease. Life-saving surgery is necessary soon after birth to remove the diseased part of the bowel, but many of these babies experience ongoing problems as they grow up – with infection and incontinence, for example.

Mr David Wilkinson said: “Most babies with Hirschsprung’s disease become ill within the first couple of weeks of life. We believe it may one day be possible to transplant a baby’s own stem cells into the bowel wall, to re-grow the missing nerve supply and improve the function of the bowel. Certain stem cells have the ability to turn into the right sort of nerves. When these cells are transplanted into experimental sections of bowel in the laboratory, they stimulate contractions.

“I am investigating how these stem cells might behave if transplanted into humans, by studying what controls their growth and development. This is important, as uncontrolled growth could cause cancer. The knowledge gained might also allow the cells’ behaviour to be manipulated, to make any future transplants more effective.”

“While working as a surgical trainee I have come into contact with many children and their families who are having to deal with the long-term complications of Hirschsprung’s disease. Twenty per cent of teenagers with the disease report problems with faecal incontinence. They can suffer frequent, unpredictable episodes of incontinence, which can be incredibly disabling at school, socially or even within the work environment.

“It is a huge privilege to be working on this project, along with a group of dedicated experts. It makes me feel humble to know that our work, made possible by Action Medical Research, could improve the quality of life of children with Hirschsprung’s disease.” he added

The wall of the bowel normally contains nerves, which trigger muscle contractions, to push digested food along. Babies with Hirschsprung’s are born with an abnormal section of bowel, which does not contain nerves and cannot push food along. Build-up of food in this section causes blockages.

Mr Wilkinson is using stem cells and bowel tissue donated by around 40 babies and children who are undergoing surgery for Hirschsprung’s and for other problems, along with cells from a laboratory model.

Mr Wilkinson, a qualified doctor, specialised in children’s surgery after moving to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, one of the largest and busiest specialised children’s hospitals in Europe and has now also joined a research group based at the Institute of Child Health at the University of Liverpool.

“While working as a surgical trainee I have come into contact with many children and their families who are having to deal with the long-term complications of Hirschsprung’s disease. So when the opportunity presented itself to help develop a new treatment, designed to improve the lives of children with the disease, I jumped at the chance.”

Dr Alexandra Dedman, Senior Research Evaluation Manager with Action Medical Research, said: “The Research Training Fellowship scheme is the cornerstone of Action Medical Research’s `commitment to develop the research expertise and skills of the future.

“By giving the brightest and best doctors and researchers the chance to train in research techniques early in their career, we are helping to ensure that the first-rate medical research work that Action Medical Research has become synonymous with will continue for a long time to come.”

For further information please contact: Claudine Powell, Communications Manager, T 01403 327478
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Action Medical Research is the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children. We know that medical research can save and change children’s lives. For nearly 60 years we have been instrumental in significant medical breakthroughs, including the development of the UK polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning in pregnancy. Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability.

We want to make a difference in:
• tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
• helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
• targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.

 1 Goldberg EL. An epidemiological study of Hirschsprung’s disease. Int J Epidemiol 1984; 13(4):479-84.
 2 Mills JLA et al. Long-term bowel function and quality of life in children with Hirschsprung’s disease. J Paediatr Surg 2008; 43: 899-905.
 3 Hirschsprung’s and motility disorders support network. Website accessed 28 April 2011.

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