To investigate the association among different circulating stem cell (SC) populations, the levels of selected growth factors and chemokines regulating SC migration in the peripheral blood, and the incidence of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).
We evaluated 88 participants in this study: 29 preterm infants with ROP, 29 preterm infants without ROP, and 30 healthy full-term infants. Peripheral blood samples collected 10 weeks after delivery were analyzed using flow cytometry, immunofluorescence, real-time reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction, and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The following cell populations were analyzed: (1) lin-CXCR4+CD45− (enriched in very small embryonic-like SCs), (2) lin−CXCR4+CD45+ (enriched in hematopoietic SCs), and (3) CD34+CD133+CD144+ (early endothelial progenitor cells) [lin indicates lineage]. The concentrations of vascular endothelial growth factor, basic fibroblast growth factor, hepatocyte growth factor, and stromal cell–derived factor 1 were measured in the plasma.
The very small embryonic-like SCs and early endothelial progenitor cells expressing neural and endothelial markers were significantly increased in the preterm infants. The number of early endothelial progenitor cells in the peripheral blood was significantly greater in the preterm infants with ROP than in the preterm infants without ROP. An accompanying increase in the concentrations of vascular endothelial growth factor and hepatocyte growth factor was found in the peripheral blood of the preterm infants with ROP. No significant associations were found between hematopoietic SCs and ROP or prematurity.
The increased number of early endothelial progenitor cells along with elevated levels of vascular endothelial growth factor and hepatocyte growth factor in preterm infants with ROP suggest that circulating vasculogenic factors may play a role in the development and progression of ROP. The increased number of very small embryonic-like SCs in preterm infants suggests that the development of immature tissues and organs, including the retina, may require a contribution of circulating SCs.