Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Placental Cells Heal Lungs

By Stephen Luntz

Cells drawn from the human placenta can reduce lung damage in mice. The finding could lead to methods for restoring damaged lungs in humans, bypassing issues involving embryonic stem cells.

A/Prof Yuben Moodley of The Lung Institute of Western Australia (LIWA) says that the finding came from the observation that, during pregnancy, part of the placenta develops from embryonic cells while the rest forms from the mother. Moodley notes that the embryonic-derived component of the placenta produces the amniotic fluid, protecting the foetus against foreign material and promoting its growth.

Researchers at the Monash Institute of Medical Research isolated cells from the human placenta, and the LIWA team injected them in mice whose immune systems were suppressed to prevent them rejecting the human cells.

The mice in question had inflammation and scarring in their lungs from the anti-cancer drug Bleomycin. The placental cells were able to reduce both inflammation and scarring.

Moodley says the decision to test for lung restoration was “fortuitous” rather than based on a deduction that this was the organ most likely to benefit. “It was because we had collaborated with Monash and I’m a lung researcher. If there had been a liver or kidney research collaboration it might have been tested there.”

As well as offering hope to patients with emphysema or other lung diseases, the amniotic cells may prove to have much wider applications. The use of placental cells, discarded by the body during childbirth, will avoid the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cells but Moodley warns: “Once injected into the mice they show markers of lung tissue, but whether these are fully differentiated lung cells is the big challenge”.

Although some possible lung stem cells have been identified, Moodley says these appear to become overwhelmed when lung damage occurs, and may benefit from the application of external cells.