Breakthrough Stem Cell Treatment for Pulmonary Hypertension Trialed

Doctors in Germany could have achieved a breakthrough as they treated a young girl suffering from a severe pulmonary condition that can lead to heart failure, by applying umbilical cord stem cell products.

Researchers at the Medical School of Hanover (MHH) announced it was the "first successful treatment of stopping the usually fatal course of the disease in the world."

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is high blood pressure in the blood vessels that supply the lungs.

There is currently no cure for the condition that can affect people of all ages.

Micrograph of stem cells
Micrograh of the cultured human mesenchymal stem cells from the donor umbilical cord. In a first, these stem cell products were used to treat a young girl with a severe pulmonary condition. Zenger News/Ralf Hass, MHH-Frauenklinik

Risk factors include family history, prior blood clots in the lungs, problems with the mitral valve, and sleep apnea.

MHH experts treated their three-year-old patient for six months a total of five times with mesenchymal stem cell products obtained from a human umbilical cord.

Mesenchymal stem cells are multipotent stem cells found in the bone marrow that are important for making and repairing skeletal tissues such as cartilage.

Professor Georg Hansmann is director of the MHH Translational Cardiopulmonary Biomedicine research group and the clinic's lead attending physician in the Department of Paediatric Cardiology and Intensive Care Medicine.

Hansmann said: "The treatment led to a significant improvement in growth, exercise tolerance and clinical cardiovascular variables. It also reduced the number of plasma markers in the blood that can be detected in vascular constriction and inflammation."

The expert pointed out: "After six months, not only was there a clear improvement in health, but there were also no undesirable side effects."

Hansmann said this was the first successful therapy for people suffering from pronounced forms of PAH.

The physician added: "Further studies are needed to confirm and explore the benefits of this new stem cell therapy."

Stem cells on a computer screen
Stem cells are viewed on a computer screen at the University of Connecticut's Stem Cell Institute at the UConn Health Center on August 27, 2010 in Farmington, Connecticut. Getty Images/Spencer Platt

Repetitive mesenchymal stem cell therapy is based on cells from the umbilical cord of newborns.

Examinations by the MHH experts showed that the products of these stem cells from the umbilical cord were not just able to improve regeneration in the damaged blood vessels.

They were also found to inhibit blood vessel inflammation and curb damage to certain parts of the cells.

Hansmann said: "We have evidence that this therapy had multiple beneficial effects.

In the heart of the treated patients, it mainly protected the energy-providing mitochondria. In the lungs, the treatment primarily inhibited inflammation and stimulated regeneration."

Hansmann underlined that "a very large team of scientists, researchers and doctors helped to implement this 'individual healing experiment.'"

The MHH cooperated with Berlin's Charité and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands on this treatment.

Hansmann came up with the new therapeutic approach through preliminary experiments with animal mesenchymal stem cells, which he had conducted in 2011 and 2012 at Harvard Medical School in Boston in the United States, research at the MHH, and, eventually, through the request of the girl's parents.

The MHH team of experts assumes that such therapy must be repeated at regular intervals to be successful in the long term.

Britain's National Health Service (NHS) lists shortness of breath, feeling dizzy, chest pain, and a racing heartbeat, among other possible PAH symptoms.

On its website, the NHS warns: "The symptoms often get worse during exercise, which can limit your ability to participate in physical activities.

"If you have a type of pulmonary hypertension known as pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), you may not have any symptoms until the condition is quite advanced."

Siemens Lung Display
Siemens displays a lung with a lighting art installation during the 3rd World Health Expo held on April 8, 2021 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Getty Images

The NHS adds: "Pulmonary hypertension cannot be cured, but treatment can reduce the symptoms and help you manage your condition. Pulmonary hypertension usually gets worse over time. Left untreated, it may cause heart failure, which can be fatal, so it's important treatment is started as soon as possible."

The Medizinische Hochschule Hannover, or Hanover Medical School (MHH) was established in 1965.

With more than 3,500 students and 8,100 full-time staff, it is the leading scientific research institution in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony.