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Stem Cells May Help Leaky Bladders

Rat study could lead to treatment for humans

THURSDAY, June 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- So called "fountain-of-youth" stem cells may one day help people with incontinence regain control of their misbehaving bladder.

Scientists say they've successfully treated urinary incontinence in rats using stem cells to firm up the muscles that control the urethral sphincter, the bladder's discharge valve.

The findings, presented Tuesday at the American Urological Association meeting in Anaheim, Calif., are extremely preliminary and have yet to be tried in people.

An estimated 13 million Americans suffer from urinary incontinence, says the National Institutes of Health. Stress-related leakage through damaged sphincters can be triggered by sneezing, laughing, coughing and other actions that work the abdominal muscles. So-called "urge" incontinence has many causes, some benign and some more serious, like prostate or bladder cancer.

A research team led by Dr. Michael Chancellor, a urologist at the University of Pittsburgh, injected stem cells derived from rat leg muscles into the damaged urethral sphincters of the rodents. Stitched to the cells was a gene that, when stained, turned the tissue blue and enabled the team to watch the progress of the grafts.

The treated urethral sphincters had nearly 90 percent more fast-twitch muscle contractions than ineffective sphincter tissue, Chancellor says. The region also showed signs of growing new muscle.

"What's remarkable is that it restored more than 80 percent of a damaged organ's function. We've really hit a home run," says Chancellor.

Chancellor says his team, which has performed similar experiments in mice, is looking for a private partner to help fund the therapy so that trials in humans with incontinence could begin early next year.

Incontinence patients aren't the only potential beneficiaries of muscle-derived stem cell transplants, Chancellor says. Stem cells may one day help repair heart attack damage, weakened diaphragms that hinder breathing and a wide range of other muscle-related illness. "Stem cells can really restore a muscle that's in very bad shape," he says.

What's more, since the grafts can be harvested from a patient's own muscle, rather than from human embryos, they skirt the sensitive ethical issues surrounding these therapies. With proper nurturing, a sample of stem-cell tissue can grow from 1 million to 10 million new cells in about a month, Chancellor says.

So far, he says stem cell experiments have proven safe, with no serious adverse reactions or cancers in trials of the therapy for incontinence, diabetes and muscular dystrophy.

What To Do

If you've got bladder trouble, and if you're older there's a good chance you do, see your doctor. Nancy Muller, executive director of the National Association for Continence, says two-thirds of people with incontinence never discuss their problem with physicians.

"Embarrassment is a major barrier preventing individuals from addressing their urinary control" trouble, Muller says. "But quality of life can be dramatically improved for a majority of people if they take action."

Drugs, minimally invasive surgeries and even simple exercises all can help restore at least some measure of bladder control, she says.

For more on stress incontinence, try Harvard University or the Urology Channel.

To learn more about stem cells, check Bio Online or the National Institutes of Health.

Read other HealthDay stories about incontinence.

SOURCES: Interviews with Michael Chancellor, M.D., professor of urology and gynecology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and Nancy Muller, executive director, National Association for Continence, Spartanburg, S.C.; University of Pittsburgh
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