By Rebecca Black
A discovery by Belfast academics could "revolutionise" treatment for patients with some cardiovascular diseases.
Researchers from Queen's University Belfast and King's College London have developed technology that can produce large quantities of stem cells in a short time, using only a small blood sample.
They have also found that the stem cells can generate and replace damaged cells in blood vessels.
It is believed this treatment could prevent a range of vascular-related complications including heart attacks, kidney disease, blindness and amputations in people with diabetes.
Principal investigator Dr Andriana Margariti, from the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen's University Belfast, described the discovery as "groundbreaking".
"Being able to produce large quantities of stem cells from a few millilitres of blood in a short time frame is truly groundbreaking," she said.
"This could revolutionise how we treat a vast number of blood vessel diseases.
"Previously, this cell transformation process would have involved a skin biopsy, or large volumes of blood, which simply isn't viable for many patients as it is a risky process which can take a long recovery time.
"This study focused on stem cells for vascular diseases but the same process can be used to produce stem cells for a number of organs, including the brain and kidneys, which has huge implications for the future of healthcare."
The researchers also discovered that activating a gene known as Endothelial Specific Molecule 1 (ESM1) in the stem cells could enhance the production and function of newly generating endothelial cells, which play a key role in a number of vascular diseases.
Endothelial cells line the blood vessels, acting as a protective barrier. As the top layer of cells in the blood vessels, it is these cells that become seriously damaged in cardiovascular disease, and this is often accelerated in patients with diabetes.
People with cardiovascular disease and diabetes are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, blindness and poor circulation because their endothelial cells are damaged.
The pre-clinical study, published in Stem Cell Journals, showed that stem cells expressing the ESM1 gene have a remarkable regenerative potential and significantly increased the blood-flow when they were tested in damaged blood vessels.
In a concept known as cell therapy, damage can be repaired through the transplantation of healthy endothelial cells.
Professor Alan Stitt, dean of innovation and education at Queen's University Belfast and co-author, said cell transplantation has "huge potential".
"This is life-changing as the results have shown that repairing these cells can stop the progressive illnesses, which will prevent blindness and amputations," he said.
"Cell transplantation has huge potential though it is not suitable for all vascular diseases such as coronary disease.
"Now we know how to generate and improve the function of these cells, we will focus on screening drugs to see which treatments will further improve the function of these cells and ultimately improve the lives of millions of people afflicted with these illnesses."