Laura Shin: Bone Marrow Stem Cells Hold Promise for Treating Diabetes-related Foot Complications

By: Almas Eftekhari

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Statistics show that over 25% of hospital stays for patients with diabetes are related to foot complications. Due to a common nerve-damaging complication called neuropathy, people with diabetes can gradually lose sensation in their legs and feet.

Diabetes also reduces blood flow to those areas and disrupts the body’s normal healing ability. Together, these factors can lead to the development of wounds in the feet that heal very slowly, or only temporarily, and become infected – sometimes resulting in amputation of a limb. Patients suffering from chronic wounds endure difficulty in standing or walking, and current treatment options are expensive, painful, and still leave a high risk for amputation.

Association-funded clinical scientist Laura Shin, from the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, aspires to achieve an effective therapy for diabetic foot complications through the use of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), a type of stem cell that can be isolated from adult bone marrow. Under the guidance of her mentor, Daniel Peterson, Ph.D., Shin has discovered that using these cells may help increase blood flow and accelerate the healing process of wounds in people with diabetes.

MSCs play a role in forming tissue like skin, fat, cartilage, and bone, and have regenerative, wound-healing properties. In healthy subjects, transferring these cells from the bone marrow to the wound site shortens healing time and prevents reoccurrence or reopening of the wound. However, diabetes interferes with immune responses and can impede the growth rate and number of MSCs that the body produces and hinder the cells’ restorative function.

To determine whether MSCs could aid healing of chronic wounds in diabetes, the researchers topically applied healthy MSCs onto the wounds of diabetic mice. They observed that this not only accelerated the rate of healing, but that the foreign cells signaled the mouse’s immune system to send its own MSCs to the wound site. In addition, Shin discovered that she could successfully manipulate impaired MSCs from the diabetic mice in vitro (in a cell culture) to function and reproduce normally. This enabled the mice to utilize their own cells to heal the wounds and thus rid the need for a transplant donor.

The results of the experiment suggest that humans with diabetic foot complications or difficulty with wound healing may benefit from topical application of MSCs. Shin expects to collect human samples in future years and hopes to see a response similar to that in the animal model.

Shin presented her preliminary findings on June 27th, 2011 at the American Diabetes Association’s 71st Scientific Sessions in San Diego, CA, and she has two publications that are currently in progress as a result of her Association-funded project.