Touching Lives - March 2012
How stem cells could be the key
Action has awarded a two-year Research Training Fellowship grant to a Liverpool-based children’s doctor, whose pioneering stem cell research could help improve the lives of babies with a life-threatening bowel condition.
Babies born with Hirschsprung’s disease often require life-saving surgery soon after birth. Around one in every 5,000 babies in the UK is born with it.
The wall of the bowel normally contains nerves that trigger muscle contractions to push along digested food. But babies with Hirschsprung’s are born with an abnormal section of bowel, which does not contain nerves and cannot push food. Build-up of food can cause blockages, and those with the condition often experience on-going problems as they grow up, such as infection and incontinence.
But evidence suggests it may be possible to use a baby’s own stem cells to treat their disease, through transplanting the cells into the bowel wall to re-grow the missing nerve supply and improve the function of the bowel.
All babies diagnosed with Hirschsprung’s need to have surgery to remove the diseased section of their bowel. Symptoms normally improve after surgery, but people with Hirschsprung’s experience problems throughout their life.
Despite undergoing surgery, some children with Hirschsprung’s suffer repeated episodes of enterocolitis – associated inflammation of the bowel,” says Mr Wilkinson. “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.” He believes that one day it may be possible to spare babies from these ongoing problems, which would improve the lives of both children and their families.