Stem cells have been found to protect and repair the lungs of newborn rats, according to a study led by University of Alberta researchers.
The research team hopes that the new findings might have significant implications for premature babies with chronic lung disease.
Led by Dr. Bernard Thibaud, researchers simulated the conditions of prematurity - giving the newborn rats oxygen.
They then took stem cells, derived from bone marrow, and injected them into the rats' airways.
Two weeks later, they found that the rats treated with stem cells were able to run twice as far, and had better survival rates.
When Thibaud's team looked at the lungs, they found the stem cells had repaired the lungs, and prevented further damage.
"The really exciting thing that we discovered was that stem cells are like little factories, pumping out healing factors," said Dr. Thebaud, an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Clinical Scholar.
"That healing liquid seems to boost the power of the healthy lung cells and helps them to repair the lungs," he added.
Thibaud said: "The dilemma we face with these tiny babies is a serious one. When they are born too early, they simply cannot breathe on their own.
To save the babies' lives, we put them on a ventilator and give them oxygen, leaving many of them with chronic lung disease."
The study appears in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.