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Stem Cell Res Ther. 2013;4(6):157.

Enteric nervous system abnormalities are present in human necrotizing enterocolitis: potential neurotransplantation therapy.



Intestinal dysmotility following human necrotizing enterocolitis suggests that the enteric nervous system is injured during the disease. We examined human intestinal specimens to characterize the enteric nervous system injury that occurs in necrotizing enterocolitis, and then used an animal model of experimental necrotizing enterocolitis to determine whether transplantation of neural stem cells can protect the enteric nervous system from injury.


Human intestinal specimens resected from patients with necrotizing enterocolitis (n = 18), from control patients with bowel atresia (n = 8), and from necrotizing enterocolitis and control patients undergoing stoma closure several months later (n = 14 and n = 6 respectively) were subjected to histologic examination, immunohistochemistry, and real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction to examine the myenteric plexus structure and neurotransmitter expression. In addition, experimental necrotizing enterocolitis was induced in newborn rat pups and neurotransplantation was performed by administration of fluorescently labeled neural stem cells, with subsequent visualization of transplanted cells and determination of intestinal integrity and intestinal motility.


There was significant enteric nervous system damage with increased enteric nervous system apoptosis, and decreased neuronal nitric oxide synthase expression in myenteric ganglia from human intestine resected for necrotizing enterocolitis compared with control intestine. Structural and functional abnormalities persisted months later at the time of stoma closure. Similar abnormalities were identified in rat pups exposed to experimental necrotizing enterocolitis. Pups receiving neural stem cell transplantation had improved enteric nervous system and intestinal integrity, differentiation of transplanted neural stem cells into functional neurons, significantly improved intestinal transit, and significantly decreased mortality compared with control pups.


Significant injury to the enteric nervous system occurs in both human and experimental necrotizing enterocolitis. Neural stem cell transplantation may represent a novel future therapy for patients with necrotizing enterocolitis.

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