Does the Placenta Have the Secret to Curing Deadly Disease?

People often joke with me, “Why is a guy who’s training was in surgery and neurosurgery stumble upon the placenta as a source of cells for this emerging field of regenerative medicine and cellular medicine?” The answer is really simple. I was convinced that unless someone pharmaceuticalized living cells, and turned them into a standard, reliable, consistent product that could be deployed at great scale with logistic and economic capabilities that could fit the healthcare system, that cellular medicine would go nowhere.

Here we had this incredible leftover of a full-term healthy pregnancy being discarded. In fact, hospitals pay to discard of it. And I thought, “Wow, this is like crude oil.” And as such, it could be put through a refinery-type process that from that biological crude oil we could get stem cells. Stem cells that could be used to produce pretty much anything. We can get immune cells and we can get byproducts like biological materials, structural materials, and we could even get these tiny little offshoots of cells called exosomes.

In the grand scheme of things, I saw of no better resource for this industry than the leftovers of a full-term healthy pregnancy. It just made complete sense to me. Around the time that I was on the faculty of neurosurgery at Cornell and was focused on head and spinal cord injury, I also took an interest in what was going on in the field of fetal surgery. Fetal surgery is a unique specialty where, because of the fact that we have tools that allow us to identify diseases that are in a developing fetus that are potentially treatable, you can actually surgically expose that developing fetus in utero.

You can perform the procedure and then allow the fetus to return to the womb and complete the pregnancy. The perfect example of that is spina bifida. Spina bifida is a developmental disorder where the skin and tissue that should be covering the spinal cord, and the developing spinal column, doesn’t close. And that exposure of the spinal cord and spinal column actually leads to progressive loss of function and in many cases long term paralysis.

Fetal surgeons are able to identify this at a time when they can surgically repair the defect, allow the fetus to complete the pregnancy, and gestate the balance of the nine months. When born, what’s remarkable is that there’s no evidence of the surgical repair. There’s no scar! There are no remnants of that procedure. It’s perfectly remodeled the way nature intended.

The reason behind that in my mind had to be linked to this amazing organ: the placenta, which the fetus is still connected to. Because of my efforts to identity an ideal source of cells and other materials for this emerging field of regenerative medicine, I saw that as a testimonial as to how powerful the placenta could be at restoring some of the regenerative power that exists at some time in our life, but we lose during our lifetimes. Wouldn’t it be neat if we could simply turn that back on and repair tissues to their original grandeur and functionality? And to do it with a product that’s safe, scalable and meets the demands of the healthcare system!

I have always felt that nature is a lot smarter than we are. Nature has equipped us with a repair kit. The repair kit exists in the form of stem cells that populate different parts of our body, either resident in our bone marrow or in compartments in every one of our tissues and organs. That repair kit is called upon in response to disease or injury and will actually participate in the regenerative process. We think of it as the repair process but when you cut yourself, that repair of the cut is a regenerative event.

You have cells that are dividing, maturing and specializing to the replace the damaged skin; to return it to its original anatomic and functional status. That is what we want to turn on in any patient we’re treating for any disorder. If the factor which is responsible for all that resides in a specific cell – a regenerative stem cell – and we could turn that into a medicine, think about how powerful that could be for treating a whole range of diseases and injuries.