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How Wharton’s jelly might be your jam

I just read an excellent article from Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, which discusses the achievements and challenges of applying Wharton’s jelly mesenchymal stem cells as a therapy. The article addresses the disorder of diabetes mellitus in particular, but it’s a great informational source about the value of Wharton’s jelly in general.

History of MSCs

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are multipotent cells that can differentiate into many cell types and play crucial roles in tissue repair, regeneration, and immune modulation. They were first discovered in the early 70’s, when they were isolated from bone marrow. The term “mesenchymal stem cell” was first used in 1991, and they were further defined in 2006 as being able to differentiate into different types of cells—bone, fat, or cartilage, depending on what their environment signals them to do. MSCs have been isolated from adult tissues such as bone marrow and fat, as well as fetal sources such as umbilical cord blood, placenta, and the umbilical cord matrix—which is called Wharton’s jelly.

Introduction to Wharton’s jelly

What is Wharton’s jelly? My reaction upon finding out that it’s not a food item, but is actually a substance that is currently considered the new “gold standard” for stem-cell based therapies, was one of mixed fascination and disgust. Despite the name, though, Wharton’s jelly is worth knowing about.

The placenta and fetus are connected by the umbilical cord during pregnancy. The umbilical cord is made up of an outer layer of cells enclosing a vein and two arteries, embedded within a gelatinous connective tissue—the “Wharton’s jelly.” Wharton’s jelly is made of collagen and proteoglycans (a type of protein that cushions, lubricates, and maintains tissue integrity). The discovery and application of Wharton’s jelly as a source of MSCs is still pretty new—the first evidence was published only 20 years ago.

Advantages of Wharton’s jelly

Since then, we have discovered that Wharton’s jelly is possibly the best source of MSCs.

  • MSCs from Wharton’s jelly have similar properties to adult bone marrow, yet the cells act like primitive stem cells from embryos in the ways that count—mainly, they are immune-privileged like embryonic stem cells, so the body doesn’t have an immune reaction even when being injected with foreign MSCs.
  • Wharton’s jelly MSCs don’t have the ethical concerns of stem cells from embryos, it’s readily available from a non-invasive source (umbilical cords, which are considered medical waste), and Wharton’s jelly has much more MSC content than umbilical cord blood—with a 100% success rate of harvesting MSCs from the Wharton’s jelly as opposed to a 6% success rate of harvesting them from the blood.
  • They are better than embryonic stem cells also because they haven’t shown tendencies to form tumors, as embryonic ones might.

Mechanisms of action

How do MSCs work? Upon injection, MSCs “home” to where tissue is injured, and it sends out signaling molecules to stimulate recovery and injured cells and to inhibit inflammation by binding to receptors on cells to trigger responses in repairing, immune response, and regulating cell growth and differentiation (This is called “paracrine signaling”). MSCs from Wharton’s jelly also show potential to differentiate into various cell types, although evidence supports the idea that the paracrine signaling characteristic is more important to heal injured tissue than MSCs differentiating into cells.

Advancements and directions

The regenerative medicine field continues to evolve rapidly. This article mentions 980 trials investigating the applications of MSCs as of its publication in 2020, and doubtless there are many more as of today. With regard to safety, trials have almost universally reported the lack of serious acute or chronic adverse effects. Although the use of MSCs is still new enough that we don’t know for sure that there aren’t chances that tumors would form in the long term, so far things look good, and on the contrary, Wharton’s jelly MSCs have been reported to secrete cancer growth suppressing factors. Scientists have high hopes for their application as a cancer therapy.

Conclusion

This article highlights the achievements of using Wharton’s jelly as a source of MSCs. It’s been shown so far to be ethical and effective, and ongoing research promises exciting advancements and new avenues for improving human health.

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