Every 15 minutes, someone in Germany receives the devastating diagnosis of leukemia. If a stem cell donor can be found and a transplant takes place, the patient will once again be able to produce their own stem cells. Unfortunately, the search for such a donor is unsuccessful for one in every seven patients.
But these tragic stories could soon be a thing of the past. This is because a team at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York has for the first time been able to use cells to cultivate blood-producing stem cells. If this procedure can be used to develop a reliable therapy, sufferers of blood diseases would no longer be dependent on finding a genetic match – the identical blood stem cells would originate from their own body.
Laboratory-grown cells for replenishing blood
To obtain blood stem cells, the research team added four proteins which promote stem cell formation to mature vascular cells in succession. The blood stem cells produced in this manner were then transplanted and now continuously regenerate the blood and also boost the immune system. “This is clinically significant, as it means that the reprogrammed cells could help patients to fight infections following a bone marrow transplant,” explained Dr. Raphael Lis.
The New York-based study proved that cells from the inner walls of endothelial cells can be reprogrammed into fully functional stem cells that ensure the continuous replenishment of healthy blood cells. To date, there have been no indications that the new treatment approach causes any blood diseases itself. However, long-term trials are still pending. The next step for Dr. Lis and his team is to produce functioning blood stem cells in larger quantities.
The new procedure is already accelerating fundamental research. “This work opens up many new possibilities which were previously unthinkable,” commented Franz Edenhofer regarding the results. Until now it has been difficult for the Innsbruck-based stem cell researcher to obtain blood stem cells from patients in order to simulate different types of leukemia in petri dishes. Now he can cultivate the cells himself.
Further successful research in Germany
The Harvard Medical School also recently reported the successful cultivation of blood stem cells. However, their method is more complex: endothelial cells are not directly extracted, but rather are obtained from pluripotent stem cells, and their reprogramming as blood stem cells requires seven proteins as transcription factors instead of four. Promising research results are also currently emerging in German-speaking countries. Researchers at the University of Zurich have recently been able to repair faulty blood-forming stem cells using the Crispr-CAS 9 genome editing tool.
According to the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), people who want to take preventative actions to keep their blood stem cells healthy should ensure they get enough vitamin A. Earlier this year, the Center published details of a mechanism in which retinoic acids deactivate unused disease-rejecting stem cells in bone marrow to protect them against mutations. Vitamin A is liposoluble: Good sources include liver, eel and tuna, and some types of vegetable.