Beyond the Umbilical Looking-Glass

Neonatal stem cells and the future of health care by Michael Monasky Health and Medical Correspondent Suzanne Pontow is an eni...

Neonatal stem cells and the future of health care

by Michael Monasky

Health and Medical Correspondent

Suzanne Pontow is an enigma. She wants to grow diseased cells to discover how to make cells healthy. She does research in regenerative medicine and says that it is “not based on human cloning,” rather consisting of cellular therapies and the repair of tissues, organs, and systems as the ultimate goal.

Dr. Pontow told an audience at California State University, Sacramento on Tuesday, March 13, that umbilical cord tissues and blood are her main focus. They provide mesenchymal tissues from the Wharton's jelly, the tough, fibrous tubing of the cord. The contents of the cord are hematopoetic; blood, of course. When teased out and cultured, they produce multipotent stem cells, which can make many cells of one type, and pluripotent stem cells which can make cells of any organ. 

Dr. Pontow emphasized two issues: first, perinatal health, which is related to what happens to the fetus; and, second, the regenerative function of tissue engineering, the new treatment and cures to such problems as traumatic injury. She calls this discovery process a “disease in a dish.”

A National Children's Study of 1,000 maternal-child pairs has been initiated. The creation of a tissue bank will enable retrospective studies of known outcomes, as medical histories will be documented with their accompanying tissues. 

Newborn umbilical cord tissue and blood will allow researchers to handle young, potent and proliferative tissues that can be collected, isolated, banked, and studied for Fragile X (autism) and Huntington's Chorea (a neurological disorder). “Disease in a dish” technology will enable this type of research.

Netrins are specialized neurological proteins which, expressed from mesenchymal cells, can help researchers trace RNA transfers. Wharton's jelly cells can be used for research in the treatment of peripheral arterial and venous disorders, which are related to diabetes and vascular illnesses. These cells can convert to pericytes, which can wrap around damaged and injured cells and tissues for their replacement. Pontow uses laser doppler to image these cells, and has successfully transplanted them for restoration of blood flow in diseased limbs of frogs. 

Dr. Pontow shares a directorship of the California Umbilical Cord Blood Collection Program at UC Davis with lab jermaingill@gmail.comscientist Jon Walker. This program will serve as a source of tissues for treatment of disease and regeneration of damaged tissues. 

Cord blood has a special application for white blood cell cancers. Bone marrow might be fresh and have a high effective blood count as a therapeutic agent. But umbilical cord blood has a short lag time from source to patient, is non-invasive, and has no risk to donor or recipient. 

California has a special place in all this research as it has the most racially diverse population in the nation. Although umbilical cord blood storage and banking is expensive, its collection is quite inexpensive. A $2 birth certificate fee raises about $2 million per year in this state for such collection. The National Marrow Donor Program has embraced cord blood collection, so that, as Pontow says, “cord blood saves lives.” At least until the program's funding ends in 2018.

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