Umbilical cord stem cells could help to repair bone and tissue for babies born with a cleft palate.

Researchers at Hospital De San Jose in Bogota, Colombia, tested cord blood stem cells on nine children in their trial. Results suggested that full recovery is possible.

What is a cleft palate?

A cleft palate is a birth defect that occurs when a baby’s mouth does not properly form during pregnancy, causing a gap in the roof of the mouth into the nose.

The condition affects around one in every 700 babies, and can cause complications with feeding, hearing, speech, and tooth decay.

The exact cause of a cleft palate is not clear. It is generally thought to be associated with genetics, maternal obesity, a lack of folic acid. It can also be caused by smoking and drinking during the course of the pregnancy.

How is a cleft palate currently treated?

Currently, surgery constitutes the main form of treatment. Doctors extract bone from elsewhere in the body, such as the hip, and then use it to ‘bridge the gap’ of the cleft palate. This is usually performed at 6-12 months, once baby is old enough to withstand surgery.

Some babies also require speech and language therapy to compensate for the cleft palate. They may also require braces and orthodontic assistance later in life.

What did the trial involve?

The trial involved identifying babies who would be born with a cleft palate before they were born, in order to prepare cord blood collection in advance.

After birth, stem cells from the umbilical cord were collected and for the first few months, the child who was at the centre of the case study received nonsurgical ‘nasoalveolar shaping’, which aligned the soft tissues of the upper jaw.

At five months, cord blood stem cells were thawed for use in a “boneless bone grafting” procedure. They were placed in a pocket of soft tissue filling the gap in the upper jaw, then scaffolded with an absorbable pad that guided the growth of any new bone cells.

Since the age is that of the newborn, [umbilical cord stem cells] have a greater potential to regenerate the organism

Dr Alejandro Garcia Botero

Hospital De San Jose

What were the results?

By age 5, doctors reported that the girl had a ‘good thickness’ to her jaw bone as well as normal teeth. The report concluded that she would not require further surgery.

How can umbilical cord stem cells treat cleft palate?

While this most recent trial used cord blood to treat cleft palate, researchers at the University of Texas have developed a technique using cord tissue to treat the condition.

They used stem cells contained inside the tissue to form the gum line as well as the front areas of the roof of the mouth. Crucially, the cord tissue therapy did not require scaffolding because cord tissue is a gelatinous substance.

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