Stories about: bronchopulmonary dysplasia

Inspired research in newborn lung disease: Stella Kourembanas, MD

Stella Kourembanas
Stella Kourembanas in the NICU with Julian (photos: Katherine Cohen)

During the NICU rotation of her clinical training, Stella Kourembanas, MD, sat at the bedside of newborn babies with hypoxia. The newborns weren’t getting enough oxygen and were suffering from pulmonary hypertension — abnormally elevated blood pressure in the lung’s blood vessels. What was triggering these patients’ disease?

Kourembanas decided her fellowship research would focus on determining how hypoxia triggers the blood vessels to become abnormal. She built her career, showing how hypoxia affects the endothelial cells that line blood vessels: what genes are turned on, how they regulate interaction between cells and how that affects the lung vasculature.

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It’s not the stem cells but what’s inside them that matters for babies with lung disease

The molecular equivalent of a message in a bottle could open up the possibility of stem cell-based therapies for newborn lung disease — but without the cells. (aturkus/Flickr)

Three years ago, Stella Kourembanas, MD, and S. Alex Mitsialis, PhD, thought they had a major breakthrough in treating pulmonary hypertension (PH) — dangerously high blood pressure in the pulmonary artery (the vessel that carries blood from the heart to the lungs) — and bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) — a chronic lung disease that can affect babies born prematurely or who were put on a ventilator.

The two diseases are complex and serious, often occur together and are currently incurable.

The solution for PH and BPD, the two researchers from Boston Children’s Division of Newborn Medicine thought, was to protect the babies’ fragile lungs with a kind of stem cell called mesenchymal stem cells (MCSs), which can develop into lung tissue.

Their preclinical studies were pretty conclusive. If they transplanted MSCs in mouse models of BPD and PH, the mice didn’t develop the lung inflammation that triggers the disease.

But the results were a little confusing.

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