Scientists at the Anthony Nolan Research Institute made the discovery while looking for treatments for a condition called skin Graft versus Host Disease (GvHD), that affects some stem cell transplant patients. GvHD is a side-effect that sees the transplant patient's new immune system attacking their body, often leading to severe skin reactions.
It is thought the discovery could eventually lead to the development of a pioneering cream containing cord blood proteins as the active ingredient, which could alleviate the symptoms of eczema and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as of GvHD.
Dr Aurore Saudemont, Senior Research Scientist at Anthony Nolan, said: "Currently, conditions such as eczema and rheumatoid arthritis are hard to manage so this accidental discovery could potentially offer a major breakthrough.
"As well as helping to treat blood cancer patients suffering with the effects of GvHD, these new findings could eventually lead to treatments that could eradicate symptoms of eczema, rheumatoid arthritis and even alopecia areata without causing any major side effects. This could be life-changing for patients as their symptoms, such as inflammation, itching and redness, can be a serious problem."
It has been known for a long time that cord blood contains soluble factors with anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressive properties, however, it remained unknown what those factors were.
Now, along with Professor Bernat Soria at the Andalusian Centre for Molecular Biology and Regenerative Medicine (CABIMER) in Seville, Spain, the team at Anthony Nolan has discovered proteins in umbilical cord blood that may play a role in the tolerance between mothers and their unborn babies.
The proteins, which are called soluble NKG2D ligands, disable the immune system's natural killer cells and this may prevent the mother and baby from rejecting each other. The scientists have also found that these proteins can be used to disable natural killer cells in other parts of the body.
In the light of their findings, the researchers are now exploring the possibility of a cream containing cord blood proteins, which they believe could disable the natural killer cells causing the symptoms of GvHD, leading to symptom remission. However, they also believe that the same cream could work for the other conditions as well as they too are caused by the body's immune system attacking healthy tissue.
After further research and, if a pharmaceutical company is interested in becoming involved, they hope a cream could be tested on the first patients within five years and say that it could eventually be widely available to those in need.
The proteins being used for this research are currently collected from umbilical cord blood held at Anthony Nolan's Cell Therapy Centre in Nottingham.
Dr Saudemont and her team are able to collect these proteins from cord blood units that are not sufficiently rich in stem cells to make them suitable for use in stem cell transplants.
The proteins are also found in the material that remains after the stem cells are removed from cord blood used in a transplant.
In addition, she said: "The material that we are using for this research would otherwise be thrown away. It is very exciting to discover that a product that is usually discarded could be so valuable."
Anthony Nolan and CABIMER have a joint patent on the use of cord blood plasma - which contains soluble NKG2D ligands - to potentially treat autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.