Stem cells help immature lungs on their way

Children born prematurely often have problems with their lungs. Can stem cells help repair their damaged lungs? Biologist Tim Wolfs is researching it with support from Longfonds (Lung Fund).

The lungs of premature children are unfinished. In addition, the lungs often suffer additional damage. This can already happen during pregnancy, for example due to an infection in the amniotic fluid. But damage can also occur after birth, including from infections or as a result of ventilation. ’Because of all these events, these children have fewer reserves from the beginning,’ says biologist and researcher Tim Wolfs. ’As a result, they can develop lung diseases more quickly, such as bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).’ So far, there is no treatment that can repair the lung damage in these children. This is why Wolfs wants to investigate whether stem cells can adjust the development of the lungs.

Stem cells

Tim Wolfs is conducting his research on premature lambs. "Their development is similar to that of children but goes a lot faster after birth. After six months they reach puberty and after a year they are adults. This allows us to follow them from birth to adulthood in a short period of time.’

Some of the lambs Wolfs treats with stem cells. Another part does not. ’We compare whether the lambs that receive stem cells do better than the lambs that do not. We study this at different stages. When they are just born, when they grow up and when they are adults.’

For the first phase, Wolfs already has results. ’We see that the lambs that receive stem cells need less extra oxygen in the first days after birth. In addition, the lungs also develop better. They produce more substances that cause better or new alveoli to form. Their immune system also works better than in lambs that have not received stem cells. You can see that because there is less inflammation in the lungs.

There is no treatment yet for lung damage in premature infants. Hopefully stem cells can help


"As the lambs get bigger, we measure their lung function. We do that just like we do with young children. We let them breathe through a mask for a short time. This is not stressful for the animals. We measure the air going in and out of the lungs in the meantime. If the lungs are damaged or less well developed, the air doesn’t go in as easily. We don’t yet know if there really are differences between the group that gets stem cells and those that don’t. We are investigating that right now."

"What I would also really like to know is how the different measurements are related. If the lungs work less well in the ’baby phase’, do you see this reflected in lung function later in life? And in the lung tissue when the sheep are adults? We will know this at the end of the study."


It is, of course, great that the initial results are so positive. But is the treatment also safe? "We can also look at safety very closely in our study. During the study we follow the lambs from birth to adulthood. That gives us the chance to measure whether nothing really goes wrong, even in the long term."

So far, the results are promising. "Stem cells seem to be a good way to address lung problems in premature infants. If all the results from the study remain so positive, we would like to start translating our findings to preterm infants."

Read more about this study here.

This article was published by Longfonds. Read the original article, written by Jessica Brussee, here.