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Thomas Wharton first identified the jellylike substance that surrounds vital parts inside the umbilical cord. Today, it has become a distinct source of stem cells and, therefore, a critical element in advancing medical treatments for everything from hair loss, the treatment of wounds, and surgical procedures.

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Found within Wharton’s jelly — which is easily harvested from what would otherwise be post-natal medical waste — are several distinct stem cell genes. With this raw material, biomedical firms can create stem cell lines that, among other things, aid recuperation via the regeneration of tissue that has been lost or damaged.

This is because stem cells are, basically, the core building blocks of all human cells — which is why they are most prominently a part of human physiology during gestation in the womb. Stem cells, when retrieved from sources like Wharton’s jelly, are not dedicated to any specific bodily function. But their power is that they have the ability, when introduced to other parts of the body, to adapt and grow — via division over an extended period of time (known as cell proliferation) — into other, more “mature” types of cells (known as potency):

Stem cells are unspecialized cells of the human body. They are able to differentiate into any cell of an organism and have the ability of self-renewal. Stem cells exist both in embryos and adult cells.

Current research is focused on growing a wide range of new tissue from stem cells, including muscle, blood, brain, and cartilage cells. It is an intricate field with remarkable potential.

Where does Whartons Jelly Come From?

  • Embryonic stem cells, which must be extracted from embryos three to five days old (known as blastocysts, which contain only about 150 cells at this point of development). This type of stem cell is very versatile and has a wide range of uses, though procuring them entails medical and ethical challenges.
  • Adult stem cells, which are present in small amounts in adult tissue but less adaptable than embryonic stem cells, making their use in medical treatments more challenging.
  • Induced pluripotent stem cells, which harness the power of genetic reprogramming — basically, the altering of a cell’s DNA — to change the course of cellular development. This is a still-developing field of study.
  • Perinatal stem cells, of which Wharton’s jelly is a significant source material. They have many of the positive characteristics of embryonic stem cells while sourcing material is far less challenging, since postpartum tissue can be used. This is an area currently under intense medical study and development.

The potential uses for them are vast: from basic research leading to a better understanding of the source of birth defects and cancer to potential treatments for common conditions like arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease to treatments for rarer but severe conditions like spinal cord and brain injuries. It’s simply one of the most exciting fields not only in current medicine, but the sciences in general.

The human umbilical cord is an increasingly popular source of cells being developed for cell therapy. The reasons, often reiterated, are the noninvasive harvest from tissue normally discarded at birth, the relatively high cell yields, and a phenotype that parallels that of mesenchymal stromal cells from other tissue sources. These cells are now being employed in human clinical trials, while also providing a cell source for an increasing number of preclinical and basic studies. Several recent reviews have highlighted the therapeutic efficacy of umbilical cord‐derived mesenchymal stromal cells and their potential advantages over other sources.

This in effect “clears the decks” of most ethical and political inhibitions on research and treatment development and has led to a concentration of attention about the uses that perinatal stem cells can be put.

In recent years this has led to a wide variety of programs in the United States that, according to the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB), make the field one of the fastest-growing areas of tissue banking. The “total number of living tissue donors increased from fewer than 600 in 2007, to more than 19,000 in 2015,” according to their webpage, and from “2012 to 2015, the number of living tissue donors increased by 122% and now make up more than 13% of total tissue donors.”

Hair Loss

A somewhat less imperative area of study is the use of Wharton’s jelly-products to treat hair loss:

Alopecia is caused by a variety of factors which affect the hair cycle and decrease stem cell activity and hair follicle regeneration capability. This process causes lower self-acceptance, which may result in depression and anxiety. However, an early onset of androgenic alopecia is associated with an increased incidence of the metabolic syndrome and an increased risk of the cardiac ischaemic disease. The ubiquity of alopecia provides an encouragement to seek new, more effective therapies aimed at hair follicle regeneration and neoregeneration. We know that stem cells can be used to regenerate hair in several therapeutic strategies: reversing the pathological mechanisms which contribute to hair loss, regeneration of complete hair follicles from their parts, and neogenesis of hair follicles from a stem cell culture with isolated cells or tissue engineering. Hair transplant has become a conventional treatment technique in androgenic alopecia (micrografts). Although an autologous transplant is regarded as the gold standard, its usability is limited, because of both a limited amount of material and a reduced viability of cells obtained in this way. The new therapeutic options are adipose-derived stem cells and stem cells from Wharton’s jelly. They seem an ideal cell population for use in regenerative medicine because of the absence of immunogenic properties and their ease of obtainment, multipotential character, ease of differentiating into various cell lines, and considerable potential for angiogenesis.

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Some of the most exciting, and important, possible uses of Wharton’s jelly therapies is in treating debilitating neurological disorders that destroy both the lives of those suffering from them and their families.

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative condition in which interneurons, which are the conduit for brain spinal cord cells to communicate with another, and brain cells themselves slowly die, which leads to profound memory loss and brain function. There is currently no cure and limited treatments, but Wharton’s jelly is now at the forefront of research into creating therapies that might reverse the ravages of Alzheimer’s:

A husband and wife team of Colombian scientists have observed Alzheimer’s precursor molecules in cells taken from newborns – a boon for research into the earliest stages of a disease that doesn’t start to show symptoms until people are in their forties.

This discovery, from the lab of Marlene Jimenez and Carlos Velez at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, came about through a technique the pair developed to turn stem cells found in umbilical cord tissue into cholinergic neurons — a type of brain cell — in just days.

The cords were donated by mothers from families with a genetic mutation that causes early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, usually before age 50…

When the baby is born, the medical team cuts some 10 centimetres (4 inches) of the cord, which is then put into a tube, Velez said.

This sample is then sent to the Jimenez-Velez lab, where stem cells from a gelatinous tissue in the cord, called Wharton’s jelly, are then chemically coaxed into becoming neurons. The researchers can then watch how those cultured brain cells with and without the mutation differ.


Another chronic — and ever more common — condition is diabetes, a cluster of diseases that wreak havoc with the body’s ability to regulate the level of glucose in the blood. This can lead to a whole cascade of problems, ranging from damaging blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, nerves, and significantly raising the risk of heart attack and stroke. Like with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the root issue is the degradation of key cells that have a specific function in the body.

But this too is an area in which Wharton’s jelly is seen as a way to advance the realm of what is possible.

Diabetes mellitus (DM) is an alarming metabolic disease in which insulin secreting β-cells are damaged to various extent. Unfortunately, although currently available treatments help to manage the disease, however, patients usually develop complications, as well as decreased life quality and increased mortality. Thus, efficient therapeutic interventions to treat diabetes are urgently warranted. During the past years, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have made their mark as a potential weapon in various regenerative medicine applications. The main fascination about MSCs lies in their potential to exert reparative effects on an amazingly wide spectrum of tissue injury. This is further reinforced by their ease of isolation and large ex vivo expansion capacity, as well as demonstrated multipotency and immunomodulatory activities. Among all the sources of MSCs, those isolated from umbilical cord-Wharton’s jelly (WJ-MSCs), have been proved to provide a great source of MSCs. WJ-MSCs do not impose any ethical concerns as those which exist regarding ESCs, and represent a readily available non-invasive source, and hence suggested to become the new gold standard for MSC-based therapies.

Wounds and Scars

The breakdown and degradation of internal cell function is the root cause of many debilitating and tragic diseases. But the treatment of traumatic accidents and their long-term repercussions via emergency medicine or physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) medicine are also areas where research and treatments are being enhanced with stem cell research.

One of the most exciting areas of such research and development is in the initial treatment of wounds. By developing wound dressings derived from Wharton’s jelly, researchers are finding ways to introduce cellular healing as early as possible in the medical process:

Corplex, a dehydrated human umbilical cord tissue, is offered in a sheet format as a wound covering or barrier membrane over acute and chronic wounds. The Corplex allograft is designed to retain both the epithelial layer and the hyaluronan-rich Wharton’s Jelly, heavily concentrated in extracellular matrix components such as glycosaminoglycans and collagen. The preservation of these structural components provides a robust matrix and protective barrier during wound remodeling.


Finally, Wharton’s jelly-based treatments are expected to be a boon to joint-related issues, whether chronic (arthritis and joint degeneration) or traumatic (injuries). The ability of clinicians to do more than simply remove or replace with prosthetics ligaments, tendons, and bones in joints — and instead instigate the regrowth of missing or damaged tissue — is an exciting new realm of medical science.

Such research and product development are well underway:

Ligament, muscle, and tendon injuries produce pain, loss of function, instability, and secondary osteoarthritis. Traditionally, these injuries have been managed using activity modification; physical therapy; pharmacological agents, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, viscosupplementation, and narcotics; and surgical procedures when conservative management fails. These modalities have limitations and potential side effects … Over the last decade, there has been an increased interest in the use of biologics for regenerative medicine applications. Biologics currently used in clinical practice include platelet-rich plasma, bone marrow aspirate, adipose tissue aspirate, amniotic fluid, amniotic membrane, umbilical cord-derived Wharton’s jelly and cord blood. The healing capabilities of these products are attributed to the presence of stem cells, growth factors, cytokines, hyaluronic acid, and/or extracellular vesicles including exosomes.

By augmenting the wide range of treatments with techniques that can actually heal the root cause of pain and limited function — namely regenerating the missing or degraded tissue in the joint — the opportunity exists to radically improve joint mobility with minimally invasive procedures.

Very recently the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) approved for payment two “Wharton’s jelly allografts” for the first time. The products — CoreText™ and ProText™ — are made by Regenative Labs and can be used to treat a number of medical conditions:

We work with dermatologists, diabetic specialists, orthopedists, surgeons, sports medicine physicians, and others to address the connective tissue supplementation needs of their patients,” said Tyler Barrett, CEO of Regenative Labs … According to CMS, both the products are intended to provide the extracellular matrix needed for the infiltration, attachment, and proliferation of cells required for the repair of damaged tissue. They are typically used for muscle and cartilage tears and to help repair damaged tissue. 

Stem Cells Therapy as an Alternative to Knee Replacement Surgery

A specific aspect of this last area of research — treating damaged knees — is now moving from ideal to practical. Currently severe, chronic knee issues stemming from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis often ends with knee replacement (knee arthroplasty), which is the swapping out of problematic joint surfaces with artificial sections of metal or plastic that once again allows at least some pain-free motion of the knee.

This is an area that has been receiving the attention of the finest medical research facilities in the world, including Johns Hopkins Medicine:

Biomedical engineers at Hopkins have caused stem cells from adult goats to grow into tissue that resembles cartilage, a key step toward creating a minimally invasive procedure that may one day be used to repair injured knees, noses and other body parts.

In this method, doctors inject a fluid filled with stem cells and nutrients into damaged tissue, then use light to harden the liquid into a stable gel. The researchers believe stem cells within the gel will multiply and form new bone or cartilage to replace the injured tissue.


Wharton’s Jelly




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