A new treatment that uses a person’s own stem cells to strengthen the bladder may one day cure incontinence.

Stress urinary incontinence (search) is a common problem that affects more than 15 million people worldwide. It occurs when the muscles that help the urethra open and close become weak or ineffective, causing involuntary leakage when a person exercises, coughs, sneezes, laughs, or lifts a heavy object. It is often seen in women after they are in middle age. Having children, menopause, and pelvic surgeries, such as prostatectomy or hysterectomy, can be risk factors for the condition.

“Urinary incontinence is a major problem for women, and for an increasing number of men," says researcher Ferdinand Frauscher, MD, associate professor of radiology at the Medical University of Innsbruck, in a news release. "We believe we have developed a long-lasting and effective treatment that is especially promising because it is generated from the patient's own body."

Frauscher presented the results of the study today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago.

New Treatment for Urinary Incontinence In the study, researchers took stem cells, which are immature cells that can develop into any type of cell, from the arms of 20 women aged 36 to 84 with stress urinary incontinence. The cells were then grown for six weeks in the laboratory. This process created more than 50 million new muscle cells.

The stem cells were taken from muscles in the women’s left arm and transplanted into the bladder muscles and urethra — the tube that passes urine from the bladder out of the body — using ultrasound-guided injections during a 15-20 minute outpatient procedure.

Researchers found many of the patients had no urine leakage within a day after the procedure. One year after the treatment, the study showed that 18 of the 20 women no longer had episodes of stress urinary incontinence. Researchers say that when the stem cells were implanted into the bladder muscles, they began to replicate and increased the thickness of the muscles.

"These are very intelligent cells," Frauscher says. "Not only do they stay where they are injected, but also they quickly form new muscle tissue and when the muscle mass reaches the appropriate size, the cell growth ceases automatically."

Researchers say this technique appears to be more successful in women than in men, and the results show stem cell transplant “represents a revolutionary and very promising treatment” for urinary incontinence.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Frauscher, F. “Ultrasound-guided Transurethral Injection of Adult Stem Cells for Treatment of Urinary Incontinence: First Clinical Results,” presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, Chicago, Nov. 29-Dec. 3, 2004. News release, Radiological Society of North America.