Researchers at Queen's University Belfast have developed a non-intrusive way to generate large quantities of stem cells, using only a small amount of blood, for the first time ever.
The stem cells can repair cells damaged as a result of vascular diseases, which has the potential to prevent blindness and reverse the need for amputations.
The researchers at Queen's and King's College London (KCL) have developed technology that can produce large quantities of stem cells in a short time.
They have also found that the stem cells produced can generate and replace damaged cells within blood vessels.
This treatment could prevent a range of vascular-related complications including heart attacks and kidney disease.
Principal investigator Dr Andriana Margariti is from the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen's University.
She said: "Being able to produce large quantities of stem cells from a few millilitres of blood in a short timeframe is truly ground-breaking.
"This could revolutionise how we treat a vast number of blood vessel diseases.
"Previously, this cell transformation process would have involved a skin biopsy, or large volumes of blood, which simply isn't viable for many patients as it is a risky process which can take a long recovery time."
Enhancing production and function
The study focused on stem cells for vascular diseases, but the same process can be used to produce stem cells for a number of organs - including the brain and kidneys.
Researchers have also discovered that activating a particular gene known as Endothelial Specific Molecule 1 (ESM1) in the stem cells could enhance the production and function of newly-generating endothelial cells, which play a key role in a number of vascular diseases.
Endothelial cells line the blood vessels, acting as a protective barrier.
As the top layer of cells in the blood vessels, it is these cells that become seriously damaged in cardiovascular disease - and this is often accelerated in patients with diabetes.
People with cardiovascular disease and diabetes are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, blindness and poor circulation because their endothelial cells are damaged.
Dr Margariti explained: "A major source of mortality among those with cardiovascular diseases, and especially patients with diabetes, is due to irreversible damage to their endothelial cells which can lead to blockage of blood flow to the heart, eyes, kidney and limbs.
"One in every two people with diabetes will die from a heart attack.
"Current treatment for diabetes is often limited to drugs that regulate sugars and fats in the blood and hypertension but unless the endothelial cells are repaired, unfortunately, the illness will continue to progress."
The preclinical study, published in Stem Cell Journals, showed that stem cells expressing the ESM1 gene have a remarkable regenerative potential - and significantly increased the blood-flow when they were tested in damaged blood vessels.
In a concept known as cell therapy, damage can be repaired through the transplantation of healthy endothelial cells.