Touching Lives - February 2008
Stem cells could be key to treating bowel disease in babies
Babies born with the condition, Hirschsprung’s disease, have a lack of nerve cells in the rectum and need an operation to relieve the subsequent obstruction and diseased section of bowel.The condition is usually diagnosed within days of birth. Keyhole techniques mean that surgery is less invasive than it used to be, but even so around 10 % of sufferers require a lifetime colostomy and many more have to live with significant incontinence problems. By using stem cells taken from infants and grown in the laboratory, the team has shown that it is possible for the cells to form new nerves, which could in the future be key to a lifelong cure for those affected. Mr Simon Kenny, a consultant Paediatric Surgery at Alder Hey Hospital and the University of Liverpool, has been leading the team together with Professor David Edgar. He said: “Although we have made huge progress in the surgical techniques used to treat this condition in the past few decades, in many ways we have gone as far as we can. “Some patients still have a poor outcome and have continence problems throughout their lives.There are thousands of children and adults in the UK living with the consequences of Hirschsprung’s disease and babies born with the most severe form of the condition need an intestinal transplant and can die before one becomes available. “Our recent study has shown that we can use stem cells isolated from the bowels of infants to grow new nerves which can join with a piece of bowel under laboratory conditions.We now have to demonstrate that these nerves can do the job of the nerves that are missing in Hirschsprung’s sufferers, but it is already a big step forward.”
Published Mr Kenny has been working alongside Richard Lindley, Dan Hawcutt and Gwen Connell.A report on the team’s work was published recently in the leading gastroenterology journal Gut, and the accompanying editorial said the Action Medical Research funded team ‘have leaped across some daunting hurdles and have thus started the race to the cure’. The team is gaining an international audience and clinical trials on the new stem cell therapy may even begin in just three years. Mr Kenny said: “There is a lot of interest in our work and obviously more to be done, but we feel that we have now passed most of the major early hurdles and it may be only a few years before clinical trials can start. “The money from Action Medical Research has been absolutely vital to us, enabling us to extend the project and make progress more quickly than we had first anticipated. “The funding environment in the UK is extremely competitive at the moment and a lot of money goes to research into major areas such as adult cancer and diabetes.They are very worthy causes of course, but we can never underestimate the impact of a lesser-known condition such as Hirschsprung’s disease on the individual who is suffering. “A cure for this disease would transform the lives of patients and their families and, since our stem cell research was made public, I have been contacted by a number of patients asking for more information about it and excited at the prospect of a new treatment.” Action Medical Research gave £122,840 to the project as part of its Touching Tiny Lives campaign. We are grateful to The Burges Bequest,The JK Stirrup Deceased Charitable Trust and other charitable trusts for contributing to the costs of this research project.