Stem cell breakthrough at URMC may soon help tiniest patients

Vienna Yannie was born with Craniosynostosis which required a 6 hour surgery

From one tiny cell you'd need a microscope to even see, researchers at the University of Rochester have found a way to grow new facial bones and even pieces of skull.

It's a huge discovery that may soon help some of the tiniest patients born with heartbreaking facial deformities.

"It's really exciting to know this might help patients and change medicine in the future," said scientist Wei Hsu, Ph.D, who is with URMC and the Eastman Institute for Oral Health.

Fifteen-month-old Vienna Yannie is curious, daring and definitely a climber! Only her parents would know that, hidden along her hairline, there is a faint scar and the shadow where two plates are fused to her skull.

The plates correct a condition with which she was born.

"We did notice there was a ridge, her head was a little pointy down the front of her head," her mother, Kimberly Yannie, told 13WHAM's Jane Flasch. "But we thought she was perfect and it would go away."

As it turns out, the bones in her little forehead were fused together where they should have open to allow her brain to grow. It's a condition called craniosynostosis, which can lead to blindness and other life-threatening issues.

The only treatment option is a six-hour surgery to open up and reform her skull.

"It's hard giving your little child to the doctors and then just trusting them," said Yannie.

Vienna had the surgery in November.

"We've taken the bones off her sockets as well as her forehead, and we've reshaped that," explained Dr. Clint Morrison, a UR Medicine surgeon who leads the craniofacial team. He performs this surgery about 30 times a year with great success.

"While, certainly, we can get very good surgical results for patients like Vienna, the reality is this is a very long and scary operation," he said.

Now researchers at UR Medicine have discovered stem cells in mice capable of growing bone in the face and skull.

"These cells are dormant when you have no injury," said Hsu. "When you have an injury occur, these cells react quickly and migrate to the injured site."

The stem cells also act as "super cells" - a single one can generate millions more needed to form a bone plate. Researchers have successfully used them to correct deformities in mice.

"We hope that we can now take these findings in animals to try to translate that into humans," said Hsu.

The discovery may lead to breakthroughs to treating bone loss from cancer and head injuries.

The next phase of research is being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The discovery may one day simplify Vienna's type of surgery and even lead to other treatments for faster healing. That's something her mom and dad can appreciate.

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