Is it old age or is it actually peripheral arterial disease or PAD?
The symptoms are all familiar: tiredness, shortness of breath, and muscle aches and cramps in your arms or legs. Your hands and feet get cold easily. Injuries are much slower to heal. You no longer can walk or exercise as much as you used to without getting worn out or sore. These are all just a normal part of aging, right?
Actually, symptoms like these may indicate a common condition that affects many people, especially as they age: peripheral arterial disease or PAD.1,2 This condition is caused by low blood flow through an artery that supplies one of your limbs. Usually, this is due to atherosclerosis – accumulation of fat inside your blood vessels – but it can also be caused by blood clots or inflammation. Often it is associated with diabetes. Most often it occurs in the legs but can also happen in the arms. Poor circulation keeps your skin and muscles from getting enough oxygen and nutrients.
Traditional treatment for PAD is invasive
In some cases, people can reduce PAD by quitting smoking or getting more exercise. Most of the time, however, medical intervention is required to expand the affected artery and improve blood flow. Sometimes a balloon catheter is used to expand the opening in a clot or atherosclerotic plaque. Other times a stent is placed in the artery to hold it open. Both of these procedures require laparoscopic surgery and associated downtime. In more extreme cases, a new blood vessel is attached to bypass the blocked artery. This requires more extensive surgery.1,2
A new approach to PAD: stem cell therapy
Significantly less invasive than surgery, stem cell therapy simply involves injecting stem cells into the affected area of your body. Recently, doctors and researchers have investigated the use of mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord blood to help with PAD. So far, these stem cells have been shown to be effective in boosting blood vessel growth and improving circulation.
Umbilical cord blood stem cells stimulate new blood vessel growth
Stem cells in older or diabetic people have a difficult time healing tissues and growing blood vessels. That is why stem cells from a young, healthy source are essential. Stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood produce high levels of growth factors that promote angiogenesis, or blood vessel growth.3,4 These include vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)5 and hypoxia-inducible factor 1-alpha (HIF-1α).6 Umbilical cord blood cells can even be modified in the laboratory to produce extra amounts of these proteins.5 Injecting these stem cells into an affected area can increase blood vessel growth and help reduce symptoms of poor circulation.3-5,7
Successful clinical trials with cord blood cells for PAD
A few small clinical trials have been run using umbilical cord blood stem cells in patients with PAD. Initial results have found that injecting these stem cells is effective in improving blood flow measures and reducing symptoms of PAD. They can also reduce inflammation and help heal diabetic ulcers and other slow-healing wounds. Also, stem cell therapy was found to be safe, with no major adverse effects reported.8,9
Overall, umbilical cord stem cells show promise as a safe, effective, minimally-invasive means to address circulation problems that affect a large proportion of aging adults.
1. Conte SM, Vale PR. Peripheral Arterial Disease. Heart, lung & circulation. 2018;27(4):427-432.
2. Mascarenhas JV, Albayati MA, Shearman CP, Jude EB. Peripheral arterial disease. Endocrinology and metabolism clinics of North America. 2014;43(1):149-166.
3. Whiteley J, Bielecki R, Li M, et al. An expanded population of CD34+ cells from frozen banked umbilical cord blood demonstrate tissue repair mechanisms of mesenchymal stromal cells and circulating angiogenic cells in an ischemic hind limb model. Stem cell reviews. 2014;10(3):338-350.
4. Li JP, Wang DW, Song QH. Transplantation of erythropoietin gene-transfected umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells as a treatment for limb ischemia in rats. Genetics and molecular research: GMR. 2015;14(4):19005-19015.
5. Li X, Gan K, Song G, Wang C. VEGF gene transfected umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells transplantation improve the lower limb vascular lesions of diabetic rats. Journal of diabetes and its complications. 2015;29(7):872-881.
6. Shen WC, Liang CJ, Wu VC, et al. Endothelial progenitor cells derived from Wharton’s jelly of the umbilical cord reduces ischemia-induced hind limb injury in diabetic mice by inducing HIF-1alpha/IL-8 expression. Stem cells and development. 2013;22(9):1408-1418.
7. Kim SW, Han H, Chae GT, et al. Successful stem cell therapy using umbilical cord blood-derived multipotent stem cells for Buerger’s disease and ischemic limb disease animal model. Stem cells (Dayton, Ohio). 2006;24(6):1620-1626.
8. Yang SS, Kim NR, Park KB, et al. A phase I study of human cord blood-derived mesenchymal stem cell therapy in patients with peripheral arterial occlusive disease. International journal of stem cells. 2013;6(1):37-44.
9. Gao WH, Gao HY, Li YT, Huang PP. Effectiveness of umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells in patients with critical limb ischemia. Medicina clinica. 2019.