Umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are taking the world by storm, all thanks to the recent advancements in science! These cells are self-renewable in nature and can be extracted from a variety of tissues including the bone marrow, umbilical cord, menstrual blood, adipose or fat tissue, amniotic fluid etc. 

In this write up, we will discuss how and why stem cells derived from human birth tissue - the umbilical cord are a better alternative to the MSCs derived from the bone marrow!

What Are Umbilical Cord-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells?

Umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells, like its counterparts from other sources, can self-renew and also have the ability to turn into other cell types like the cartilage, bone, corneal, muscle, neural and skin cells (multilineage differentiation)1. In addition to the umbilical cord, some of the other common sources of these cells in humans include the bone marrow, menstrual blood, adipose or fat tissue, and amniotic fluid.

Umbilical Cord-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells & Non-Compatible Donors

The mesenchymal stem cells have been observed to show interesting immunomodulatory (activate/suppress immune response) properties. Such activities of the MSCs could be owing to reduced or complete absence of MHC (major histocompatibility complex) I and II molecules. These complexes are proteins that play an important role in recognizing foreign particles in the body2

The absence of MHCs in the umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells is a contributing factor to its low immunogenicity (ability to induce an immune response). MSCs are also being made available off-the-shelf and can be safely used in an allogeneic donor setting (non compatible) as they are universal donor cells and do not need donor-recipient matching prior to a transplant 3.

Umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells also portray other features that make them a great option when it comes to immunotherapy and allogeneic transplants like their ability to2:

  • Suppress T cell activation
  • Promote apoptosis or death of activated T cells
  • Inhibit the proliferation of B cells, NK (natural killer) cells and production of cytokines

The Immunomodulatory Effect Of Umbilical Cord-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells

In addition to the characteristics of the umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells revealed above, the immunomodulatory effect of the MSCs is owing to paracrine (cell to cell) effects2. In simpler words, the paracrine effect means that the repair of diseased tissues is stimulated by specialized donor cells. However, the donor cells in action here do not contribute directly to the formation of the new cells. 

The paracrine effect is usually owing to the secretion of soluble growth factors. These mechanisms together also contribute to the anti-inflammatory action of MSCs, which further makes the mesenchymal stem cells a powerful therapeutic against autoimmune and inflammatory diseases2.

Umbilical Cord Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells Vs Bone Marrow Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells

The mesenchymal stem cells derived from both the umbilical cord as well as the bone marrow comply with the criteria defined by the International Society for Cellular Therapy and are able to transform into osteoblasts, adipocytes, as well as chondrocytes2

  • Immunogenicity 

Umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells, in general, are known for their low immunogenicity. However, in a study published in the journal Stem Cells International, the MSCs derived from the umbilical cord were observed to consistently exhibit even lower immunogenicity than its bone-marrow derived counterparts2!

  • Immunosuppression

The same study also tested the immunosuppressive (the ability to suppress an immune response) properties of the mesenchymal stem cells derived from both the umbilical cord tissues as well as the bone marrow. Quite interestingly, the umbilical cord derived mesenchymal stem cells were naturally found to be more immunosuppressive than the bone marrow MSCs.

The immunosuppressive action of the mesenchymal stem cells derived from umbilical cord was found to be owing to the:

  1. Inhibiting activation and growth of lymphocytes
  2. Inducing the regulation of T cells

It was also seen that unlike bone marrow stem cells, MSCs from the umbilical cord did not require priming or activation to exhibit their immunosuppressive and immunomodulatory action.

A Concluding Note

Multiple clinical studies suggest that umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells are powerful candidates for allogeneic as well as autologous transplants, all thanks to its commendable ability to modulate and suppress the immune responses! 

Another important observation was that the properties of MSCs may differ depending on its parent source. As of now, the gold standard that was set by the phenomenal bone marrow-derived MSCs seems to be overthrown by the naive umbilical cord derived stem cells. However, further clinical trials will be required to confirm or refute this claim.