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USF researchers examine possibilities of umbilical cord cells

USF researchers are beginning to understand how human umbilical cord blood cells may help treat diseases and disorders caused by aging.

Alison Willing, a USF neuroscientist, said she and five others led a yearlong study that examined how a portion of the human umbilical cord blood enhances the functioning of aging brain cells.

“Human umbilical cord blood, which comes from birth, has a number of different components,” said Paul Sanberg, director of the USF Center for Aging and Brain Repair (CABR). “What we were very interested in was to see whether (a portion of blood extracted from the umbilical cord) actually has affects that can improve things that are seen with aging of the brain.”

Sanberg said the study was concerned with the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with learning and memory.

Willing, who has studied cord cells for more than 10 years, said when humans and animals age, cells in the hippocampus lose their function, causing learning and memory to decrease.

According to the study, “Human Umbilical Cord Blood Cells Have Trophic Effects on Young and Aging Hippocampal Neurons in Vitro,” which was published in the December 2010 issue of Aging and Disease, umbilical blood helped increase the survival and maturation of brain neurons in both young and aging neurons.

“This particular study was a Petri dish experiment,” said Sanberg, who conducted the study with Willing. “(The study) used a fraction of the umbilical blood, which is enriched with stem cells, and (added those to the aged hippocampus cells.)” Willing said the study used cultures of cells taken from laboratory animals.

“I think this is a really important study because it shows that one of the mechanisms of how the cells are working is through what we call these trophic effects,” Sanberg said. “These effects are like factors allowing the cells to survive better and to grow better.”

Willing said the study should not be thought of in relation to how “accurate” the findings were, since there are many ways cord blood may affect cells.

“The cord stem cells added to the hippocampus brain cells improved the function and repaired cells, especially those neurons from the older-aged animals,” she said.

Sanberg said this research is important because it is beginning to show the possibilities umbilical blood offers in treating cognitive disorders of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Willing said USF is now researching the different ways cord blood cells can be used, such as how umbilical adult stem cells could help patients recover from stroke.

“Cord blood is already used to help children that have various cancers,” Sanberg said. “So it is used clinically as treatment for diseases.”

The study was funded in part by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Willing said.