Health/Science
4:50 pm
Sun February 24, 2013

Cracking The Code To Create Special Blood-Forming Cells

In the near future, scientists may be able to reproduce blood-forming stem cells in a laboratory. That could save the lives of thousands of people suffering from diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and other blood cancers. The Dallas doctor who's brought us closer to this reality published the breakthrough in stem cell research in the national science journal Nature.

The KERA radio story.

Scientists are already able to make the stem cells that form the nervous system, skin and other tissues, but there have been roadblocks to making blood-forming stem cells in the lab. As a result, patients who need to regenerate special blood cells often have to undergo bone marrow transplants. There are currently about 10,000 people in the US searching for a donor, and each year at least a thousand people in this country die waiting for a donor match.  

If scientists could take just a few blood-forming cells from a patient, grow them in a lab and then transplant exactly the type and number of cells a patient needed later on it could potentially save thousands of additional lives. That's according to Dr. Sean Morrison, director of the Children's Research Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He explains no one has been able to reproduce blood-forming stem cells in large part because we don’t understand the environment in which they live.

But Dr. Morrison and his team are close to cracking the code. In the investigation led by Dr. Morrison, he identifies what he calls “specialized neighborhoods” within the bone marrow where various blood-forming cells live.

“And now that we know how to identify these neighborhoods, we have a way of looking for what the additional signals are that the body uses to maintain these blood-forming cells,” he says.

Find out more about the groundbreaking work of Dr. Morrison and his team at the Children's Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern here.

UT Southwestern's Dr. Sean Morrison has taken another step towards understanding how blood-forming stem cells survive.
Credit Courtesy of UT Southwestern

Stem Cells Background:

  • Stem cells are unspecialized stem cells that are able to replicate and become different types of cells. Scientists primarily work with two kinds of stem cells from both humans and animals: embryonic stem cells and non-embryonic so-called "adult" stem cells.  

  • Adult stem cells have been identified in many organs and tissues, including brain, bone marrow, skeletal muscle, skin, teeth, heart. The cells are thought to reside in a specific area of each tissue called a "stem cell niche”.

  • Adult stem cells help treat a variety of diseases, including multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.

For more, check out this stem cell timeline.