UBC grows ‘perfect’ blood cells, hopes it will help with diabetes and more

Any practical applications are years away but promising findings may lead to the ability to prevent blood vessel damage or event to eventually reverse it, says director of Life Sciences Institute

An illustration of vascular organoids, lab-made human blood vessels, at heart of a UBC Life Sciences Institute study that says growing blood vessels from stem cells could revolutionize treatment of vascular diseases. UBC / PNG

UBC-led study has grown “perfect” blood vessels from stem cells and researchers are calling it game-changing for its potential to transform treatment of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, strokes and heart attacks.

“It’s never been done before,” said Dr. Josef Penninger, the new director of UBC’s Life Sciences Institute. He said it’s a game changer because it can be used by clinicians to first prevent damage to blood vessels and maybe eventually reverse the damage.

He said the application would be far reaching even just among diagnosed diabetes, who number 420 million worldwide. He said there are an additional 500 million people who are likely to develop the disease.

He said growing healthy cell walls would also be beneficial for treating a number of other diseases, including heart disease, cancer and non-healing wounds, because the lack of the blood system to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the body parts affected by those diseases is what usually kills patients.

Dr. Josef Penninger, director of UBC Life Sciences Institute. UBC / PNG

Penninger said the results, published in the scientific journal Nature, document the bioengineering by the research term that show how they were able to transplant the human cells into a mouse.

They grew into a “perfect human blood vessel tree” in the mouse.

The mouse was then given diabetes and the diabetes reacted differently to the human cells than it does for the mouse cells, which is a boon for research because these vessels can be a better model for studying diseases than traditional mice specimens, said Penninger.

The research would allow researchers to develop drugs that could prevent damage to blood vessels and “to hopefully reverse (damage) one day.”

“There’s a major need to develop new medicines” to prevent blood vessel diseases because none of the existing drugs used to treat various diseases have an effect on blood vessels, he said.

The next step is to attract private partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to develop a product from this academic research, and any practical application would be years away.

At the same time UBC released this study, Chinese scientists announced in the journal Cell Stem Cell that they produced the world’s first genetically engineered human blood vessel cells, according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua.

That study showed the function of a blood vessel cell can be enhanced by editing a single gene that is responsible for longevity.

The researchers tested it in a mouse and found the cells promoted vascular regeneration and resisted tumour growth. This study also is expected to lead to medicine to help regenerate cells.

Similar research to repair blood vessels is being done through the Ottawa Hospital Foundation, where researchers have injected vascular stem cells into mice in the hopes of restoring blood circulation in patients who have suffered a stroke, heart attack or blocked leg artery, according to the foundation.