Important step forward in stem cell therapy for rare bowel disease

27 Jun 2024, 11:15 a.m.

Stem cell therapy

A new study led by researchers at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (UCL GOS ICH) and the Centre for Stem Cell Biology, University of Sheffield, has demonstrated the potential of stem cell therapy to treat those with Hirschsprung disease.

Hirschsprung disease is a rare condition where some nerve cells are missing in the large intestine. This means the intestine doesn’t contract and can’t move stool and therefore can become blocked. This can cause constipation and sometimes lead to a serious bowel infection called enterocolitis.

Around 1 in 5000 babies are born with Hirschsprung disease. The condition is usually picked up soon after birth and treated with surgery as soon as possible however patients frequently suffer debilitating, lifelong symptoms, with multiple surgical procedures often required.

Alternative treatment options are therefore crucial. One option that has been explored by researchers involves using stem cell therapy to generate nerve cell precursors, which then produce the missing nerves in the intestine of those with Hirschsprung disease after transplantation. This in turn should improve the intestine’s functionality.

However, this procedure has not been carried out on tissue donated by people with Hirschsprung disease until now.

A focus on collaboration

The research was a collaborative effort between researchers at UCL GOS ICH and the University of Sheffield which began in 2017.

The Sheffield researchers focused on the production and analysis of nerve precursors from stem cells. These were then passed to the UCL GOS ICH team, which prepared the gut tissue, undertook the transplantation and maintenance of the tissue and then tested the function of the tissue segments.

The study involved taking tissue samples donated by GOSH patients with Hirschsprung disease as a part of their routine treatment which were then cultured in the lab. The samples were then transplanted with stem cell-derived nerve cell precursors which then developed into the crucial nerve cells within the gut tissue.

Importantly the transplanted gut samples showed increased ability to contract compared to control tissue suggesting improved functionality of the gut in those with the disease.

At GOSH we know collaboration is vital for transforming the health of children and young people as shown through our NIHR GOSH Biomedical Research Centre Paediatric Excellence Initiative, a partnership between GOSH and children's hospitals in Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield. Our NIHR Biomedical Research Centre underpins all research at GOSH.

Photo of Conor

Dr Conor McCann

Dr Conor McCann, Principal Investigator at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health said:

“This study is a real breakthrough in our cell therapy work for Hirschsprung disease. It really shows the benefit of bringing the expertise of different groups together which will hopefully benefit children and adults living with Hirschsprung disease in the future”.

Dr Anestis Tsakiridis, Principal Investigator at University of Sheffield said:

“This has been a fantastic collaboration, led by two talented early career scientists, Dr Ben Jevans and Fay Cooper. Our findings have laid the foundations for the future development of a cell therapy against Hirschsprung disease and we will continue our efforts to bring this to the clinic in the next few years”.

Photo of Anestsis and Fay in their lab in Sheffield

Anestis and joint author Fay in their lab in Sheffield

Important progress

The results of this study, published in Gut, demonstrate for the first time the potential of stem cell therapy to improve the functionality of the intestine in those with Hirschsprung disease which turn could lead to improved symptoms and better outcomes for individuals with the disease.

Researchers will now be applying for further funding for clinical trials to develop this treatment.

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