Terms Explained: what is Wharton’s jelly?

If you’ve ever thought or learned about umbilical cords, you probably know that they carry nutrients to the baby and carry waste away from the baby.

If you’ve ever contemplated that, you probably realized that umbilical cords have to be very complex and amazing to do those two seemingly simple tasks.

Umbilical cords have two arteries and one vein (and, early on, a duct that serves as an external bladder for the baby) which connects parent to child. These vessels are surrounded by a protective outer layer and are cushioned in a gelatinous substance called Wharton’s jelly.

Wharton’s jelly is defined as “a soft connective tissue that occurs in the umbilical cord and consists of large stellate fibroblasts and a few wandering cells and macrophages embedded in a homogeneous jellylike intercellular substance”.
Basically, it protects the vessels that connect parent to child, which is amazing.

But there’s more.

We don’t even know yet exactly how awesome Wharton’s jelly is; in fact, in the 2010s, scientists did a lot of investigating what Wharton’s jelly can do even after it serves its typical purpose (facilitating nutrient and waste exchange until birth). What they’ve found so far regarding the stem cells in Wharton’s jelly is really exciting.

But first, a quick note on ethics, just in case your eyebrows went up when I said “stem cells.” The cells in Wharton’s jelly are not embryonic cells. So, using the stem cells in Wharton’s jelly creates far fewer ethical concerns than than using human embryonic stem cells because no human embryo’s existence is threatened by the procedure. I spoke with a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, an organization which opposes human embryonic stem cell research, and they noted that the use of stem cells from Wharton’s jelly still has important ethical considerations (such as willing informed consent from the parent), but that it sidesteps ethical issues around destruction of human embryos (personal correspondence, April 19, 2021). So, ethically, gathering stem cells from Wharton’s jelly is similar to gathering stem cells from adult bone marrow.

Amazingly, the stem cells from Wharton’s jelly can reproduce easily (not true of all stem cells) and don’t cause some of the medical problems that other stem cell treatments can cause (source). Further, they are easier to get than other kinds of stem cells (the success rate for obtaining stem cells from umbilical cords, for example, is 6%; from Wharton’s jelly? 100%!). And what those cells can do in their “reuse” phase could be amazing. Researchers have found potential that these stem cells can help treat inflammation and musculoskeletal injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and even diseases such as diabetes. There’s even a study going on right now that examines whether stem cells from Wharton’s jelly can help treat those ill with covid-19.

Basically, Wharton’s jelly is amazing. It cushions lifelines during its natural use and has the potential to better or even save lives through its reuse. If you want to read more about Wharton’s jelly, check out this article or look to other trusted sources.

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