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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 01:36 GMT
Stem cells to cure incontinence
Stem cells
Stem cells are used in a variety of treatments
Scientists are successfully treating stress incontinence with a transplant of the patient's own stem cells.

Cells are removed from muscle tissue in the patient's arm, cultured in a lab, and injected into the wall of the urethra and the sphincter muscle.

This prevents urinary incontinence - sometimes within 24 hours - by building up muscle volume and tone.

The Medical University of Innsbruck presented their work to the Radiological Society of North America.

We believe we have developed a long-lasting and effective treatment.
Dr Ferdinand Frauscher
The transplant can be completed in just 15 to 20 minutes as an outpatient procedure.

Lead researcher Dr Ferdinand Frauscher said: "Urinary incontinence is a major problem for women, and for an increasing number of men.

"We believe we have developed a long-lasting and effective treatment that is especially promising because it is generated from the patient's own body."

Stress incontinence affects nearly 15 million people - primarily women - around the world.

It occurs when the urethra, which carries urine from the bladder, narrows or becomes otherwise abnormal, or when the sphincter muscles that help open and close the urethra become weak or diminished.

This leads to urine leakage when an individual exercises, coughs, sneezes, laughs or lifts heavy objects.

Twenty women, aged 36 to 84, who were experiencing minor to severe stress incontinence took part in the research.

Millions of new cells

Cells were taken from each patient's arm, and grown using a patented technique which yielded 50 million new muscle cells (myoblasts) and 50 million connective tissue cells (fibroblasts) after six weeks.

When implanted into the patient under general or local anaesthesia, the new stem cells began to replicate the existing cells nearby.

One year after the procedure, 18 of the study's 20 patients remain continent.

Dr Frauscher said: "These are very intelligent cells. Not only do they stay where they are injected, but also they quickly form new muscle tissue and when the muscle mass reaches the appropriate size, the cell growth ceases automatically."

The Innsbruck team used sophisticated 3D ultrasound to make sure the stem cells were in contact with the correct urethra and sphincter tissue when transplanted. This was crucial to ensure the new cells began to produce the right type of tissue.

Stem cells are the body's master cells, capable of growing into any tissue of the body.

Scientists believe that adult stem cells are located in small numbers throughout the tissues of the human body, where they quietly reside until activated by disease or injury and begin dividing.

Dr Judith Wardle, director of the Continence Foundation, welcomed the Austrian research, but stressed that it was a small study without long-term follow-up.

"We would want to see this treatment compared with the data on the use of other injected substances, not just collagen," she said.

"It would also be appropriate to compare with results from the recently launched drug, duloxetine."

Remote 'keeps bladder in check'
30 Oct 03 |  Health

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