First stem-cell transplant for fetus in Asia


Even when she was only a foetus, she had already sustained multiple bone fractures in her mother’s womb, which doctors detected during an ultrasound scan. While still in utero, the baby girl from Taiwan was diagnosed with osteogeneis imperfecta (OI), also known as brittle-bone disease, which is a genetic disorder that usually leads to severe and wide- spread bone damage.

But today, that baby girl is an active child who is doing well after the team of experts from the National University Hospital (NUH) treated her by injecting her with bone-forming cells — mesenchymal stem cells — through her mother’s womb. These stem cells not only formed, but also improved her bone tissue and prevented her from sustaining repeated, painful fractures as she grew up.

The baby girl was one of two foetuses with OI to have received in-utero stem cell transplant. The other was a girl in Sweden who underwent the same treatment when it was introduced by the Karolinska Institute in 2005.

This latest clinical breakthrough is a first for NUH and in Asia and its results were published on Monday in the scientific journal, Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

What was interesting was, though the stem cells were extracted from the livers of donors who were genetically unmatched, there was no rejection and the transplanted cells were accepted.

Dr Citra Mattar, Associate Consultant at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at NUH said because a foetus’ immune system is still immature, it is less likely to reject stem cells.

While the treatment is still part of a clinical study, Associate Professor Mahesh Choolani, Senior Consultant at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at NUH, who led the team of experts, said the hospital is preparing to launch a fetal therapy centre.