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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 00:22 GMT 01:22 UK
Cell technology 'treats incontinence'
Lab work
Scientists have harnessed the power of stem cells
Scientists are developing a way to treat incontinence by stimulating the growth of new muscle tissue.

They have achieved this by using stem cell technology - a branch of research that has tremendous potential to solve many of medicine's most intractable problems.

Stem cells are immature cells that have yet to take on permanent characteristics of their own.

These findings are exciting on many levels

Professor Michael Chancellor
In this state, they could potentially be manipulated by scientists to become almost any type of cell in the body.

Therefore, the technology could potentially be harnessed to repair and regenerate damaged tissue throughout the body.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh successfully used stem cells to cure incontinence in laboratory experiments on animal tissue.

The stem cells were used to generate muscle to replace damaged tissue in the urethral sphincter.

When this sphincter is not working properly, it can lead to urinary incontinence.

Exciting breakthrough

Lead researcher Professor Michael Chancellor said: "These findings are exciting on many levels. First, this is the first time that stem cell tissue engineering has been used to regenerate and restore function in deficient sphincter muscles.

"Secondly, it lays the foundation for further investigation into methods of using stem cells to treat stress urinary incontinence."

People with stress urinary incontinence involuntarily lose urine while doing activities that put stress on the abdomen, such as laughing, sneezing, coughing, lifting or walking.

The condition is most often caused by childbirth, menopause or pelvic surgery.

The Pittsburgh team took stem cells from rats, genetically modified them, and injected them into urethral sphincter tissue.

Tests showed that the cells improved the ability of the tissue to expand and contract in response to electrical stimulation.

Examination under the microscope showed that the stem cells had stimulated the formation of new muscle fibres.

Help to many

Professor Terrence Partridge, an expert in muscle cell biology at the Medical Research Council unit at Hammersmith Hospital, told BBC News Online that the research could potentially help a lot of people.

He said the regenerated muscle was of good quality, and did not seem to pose any rejection problems.

He said: "Urethral incontinence is a major problem in middle aged women, and if this technique works it could help to address a very important and embarrassing clinical condition."

Professor Partridge said the technique had potential for regenerating small amounts of muscle.

However, he said it was not yet possible to regenerate large amounts of muscle over a big area, such as might be required to treat people with muscular dystrophy disorders.

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See also:

03 May 01 | Health
'Super stem cell' tested in mice
17 Feb 01 | Health
Stem cells repair stroke damage
30 Apr 01 | Health
Stem cells 'improve rat memory'
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