Artificial blood vessels made by University of Minnesota Scientists

In patients who must receive dialysis to accommodate failing kidneys, ports are placed in their blood vessels, and a vein and an artery are tied together.  The name for the connection of an artery and a vein is a Cimino-Brescia fistula. Such fistulas are necessary for dialysis, and they are usually made in the arm. Since blood, like other fluids takes the path of least resistance, such fistulas generate high volume flow rates. Blood flow will prefer the fistula over capillary beds, which are high resistance flow areas. Also, native blood vessels are usually used to generate these fistulas because they are less likely to narrow and fail. Unfortunately, these surgical connections tend to fail. Worse still, they cannot be used in some patients because of the bad shape of their vascular system. Therefore, the answer in those cases is a graft. That seems onerous and likely to fail too.  Is there a better way?

Zeeshan H. Syedain and his coworkers from the laboratory of Robert Tranquillo at the University of Minnesota have used tissue engineering approach to generate vascular grafts from fibrin scaffolds and skin-based human fibroblasts.  In short, Tranquillo and his colleagues have made “off-the-shelf” blood vessels that were grown in the laboratory and do not have any living cells. Such lab-grown vessels might serve as blood vessel replacements for hard-up dialysis patients and others.  Tranquillo and his group published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

To make blood vessel substitutes, Tranquillo and others embedded human skin cells in a gel-like material made of cow fibrin. This concoction was grown in a bioreactor for seven weeks, after which, the cells were washed away. This left vessel-like tubes made of collagen and other proteins secreted by the cells.

Synthetic blood vessels
Researchers at the University of Minnesota have created a new lab-grown blood vessel replacement that is the first-of-its-kind nonsynthetic, decellularized graft that becomes repopulated with cells by the recipient’s own cells when implanted. Image courtesy of University of Minnesota.

Tranquillo said of this study, “We harnessed the body’s normal wound-healing system in this process by starting with skin cells in a fibrin gel, which is Nature’s starting point for healing.” He continued, “Washing away the cells in the final step reduces the chance of rejection. This also means the vessels can be stored and implanted when they are needed because they are no longer a living material.”

The vessel-like tubes looked like blood vessels, and they lacked any human cells.  Therefore, the immune system should not reject them if they were implanted into a human body.  However, can they function as blood vessels? To address this concern, Tranquillo and others implanted their laboratory-produced tubes into adult baboons. Six months after transplantation, the engrafted vessels looked like blood vessels and healthy cells from the recipient had grown into them and seemed to adapt to them without any ill effects. These laboratory-made vessels could withstand 30 times the average human blood pressure without bursting.  Additionally, there was no indication of an immune response and the grafts even self-healed when punctured with a needle.

Tranquillo and the team are in the process of FDA approval to test their synthetic blood vessels in clinical trials. In particular, Tranquillo and his team would like to test them in children with pediatric heart defects.

Infusion of high-dose umbilical cord blood cells normalized brain connectivity and improves motor function in children with cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is a congenital disorder that adversely affects movement, muscle tone and posture. Because those who suffer from congenital cerebral palsy are bone with it, there is often little that can be done to predict or prevent it. Cerebral palsy or CP is usually due to abnormal brain development prior to birth, but it can also result from in utero strokes, or oxygen deprivation during development or delivery. CP causes exaggerated reflexes, floppy or rigid limbs, and involuntary motions and there is a generalized weakness of skeletal muscles. CP affects 2-3 per 1,000 live births and the investment required by schools to accommodate CP children is substantial.  Furthermore, the personal investment of the heroic parents of CP children is substantial and, at times, exhausting.

Fortunately, animal models of CP have shown that the infusion of stem cells into the brains of young AP animals improves motor (movement-based) function.  In particular, human umbilical cord blood cells seem to facilitate repair of neural networks in the brain and improve movement. One study (Pediatric Research 2006; 59(2): 244-249) by Carola Meier and others from Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany used an oxygen-deprivation model of CP in rats to show that treatment of these animals with human Umbilical Cord Blood Cells (hUBCs) substantially alleviated spastic paresis as assessed by walking track analysis. Also, examination of brain slices established that administered hUCBs incorporated themselves around the brain lesion (a phenomenon called “homing”) in large numbers. This study showed that the administration of hUCB stem cells after perinatal brain damage to could significantly reduce potential motor deficits.  A second paper (Developmental Neuroscience 2015;37(4-5):349-62) by Drobyshevsky and others from North Shore University Health System in Evanston, IL and collaborators from Duke University used a CP rabbit model to assess the efficacy of hUBCs to treat CP. In this experiment, Drobyshevsky and others induced oxygen deprivation when the rabbits were at 70% of their in utero lives. Then a group of the newborn rabbits were treated with hUCBs while others were not. The hUBC-treated animals showed significant improvements in posture, righting reflex, locomotion, tone, and dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions that cause repetitive or twisting movements). Unfortunately, the swimming test however showed that joint function was not restored by the hUBC treatment, but these other functions were. Tracking studies of the infused hUBC cells did not indicate that the cells penetrated into the brain with any efficiency, and Drobyshevsky and others suggested that the cells exerted their beneficial effects by means of “paracrine signaling,” which is to say that the cells secreted molecules that induced healing by activating native cells rather than differentiating into new neurons that created neural networks.


On the strength of these animal experiments, Jessica Sun from Duke University Medical Center and her colleagues and collaborators from multiple institutions extended these studies into human CP patients.  This, I’m sure, was a very dicey experiment to run because the subjects were children.  Getting approval for clinical experiments on children is very difficult and time-consuming.  Sun and her colleagues had shown that her hUBC infusion protocol was safe in a previous publication (Transfusion 2010; 50: 1980-1987) in which Sun and others reported treating 184 children with a single infusion of their own umbilical cord blood. The paper reported that the adverse effects of this treatment were rare and minimal. Because this was a Phase I study, it was only designed to assess the safety of the hUBC infusions and not their efficacy.


In a second publication, Sun and others have reported the results of their Phase II study in which they treated 63 CP children with various doses of hUBCs. This was a rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study in which Sun and her colleagues gave 10-50 million hUBCs per kilogram body weight to CP children between the ages 1 to 6 years.  These children received either their own umbilical cord blood or a placebo at the start of the experiment, followed by an alternate infusion 1 year later. After 1 year, those children who had received their own UBCs at the beginning of the trial, received the placebo, and those who had received the placebo at the start of the trial received their own UBCs. The children were assessed by means of specific motor function tests and their brains were imaged by means of magnetic resonance imaging brain connectivity studies. These assessments were done at the start of the trial, and then 1, and 2 years after the treatment.  To assess their motor skills, children were tested with a clinical tool called the Gross Motor Function Measure-66 tool.  This clinical tool evaluates changes in motor function in CP children.  Children are asked to perform a range of everyday activities from lying and rolling to walking, running, and jumping.  The children are given a composite score for all 66 tasks they are asked to do and this score reflects the depth of their motor skill. Changes in the Gross Motor Function Measure-66 (GMFM-66) indicates an improvement or decrease in motor function.  The primary endpoint was change in motor function 1 year after baseline infusion.

Two years after the initial treatments, the children were given further evaluations. Of the 63 CP children, 32 received their own umbilical cord blood and 31 received the placebo at the start of the experiments. One year after the trial began, Sun and her team detected no average change in GMFM-66) scores between the placebo and treated groups.  However, two years after the start of the trials, those CP children who had received higher doses of their own umbilical cord blood (20 million cells or more) showed significantly greater increases in their GMFM-66 scores.  In fact, their GMFM-66 scores were above what CP children at this specific age usually score. Another test that was administered was the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales test, which consists of six subtests that measure abilities in early motor development and assesses gross and fine motor skills in children from birth through five years of age. Gross Motor Quotient scores from the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales tests also revealed that children who had received the higher dose UBC treatments showed normalized scores, which indicates that the motor development of these children had become more normal rather than delayed.

Finally, the MRIs revealed normalized brain connectivity in the CP children who had received the higher doses of their own umbilical cord blood cells.

While this study is still preliminary, it suggests that appropriately doses of a child’s own umbilical cord blood stem cells improves brain connectivity and gross motor function in young children with CP.