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Blood Disorder Cure Closer After New Cell Discovery

Aug 14, 2014 03:38 PM EDT

A cure for a range of blood disorders and immune diseases may be a possibility in the near future after scientists identified a mechanism in the body that can naturally produce stem cells.

As described in the journal Nature, the study identified for the first time mechanisms in the body that trigger hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) production. Found in the bone marrow and in umbilical cord blood, HSCs are critically important because they can replenish the body's supply of blood cells. So far just leukemia patients have been successfully treated with HSC transplants, but scientists have yet to try it on patients with other types of blood disorders.

Lead researcher Professor Peter Currie, from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) in Australia, coins this type of therapy as the "Holy Grail" of stem cell biology.

"HSCs are one of the best therapeutic tools at our disposal because they can make any blood cell in the body," he said in a press release.

"Potentially we could use these cells in many more ways than current transplantation strategies to treat serious blood disorders and diseases, but only if we can figure out how they are generated in the first place. Our study brings this possibility a step closer."

So why haven't treatments using HSCs been explored further? The trouble with using HSCs is that they are difficult to produce in a lab setting. Previous research indicates that a molecular "switch" may also be necessary for HSC formation, and until now, the mechanism had been a mystery.

ARMI researchers observed cells in developing zebra fish, known for its regenerative abilities and optically clear embryos, to better understand the signaling process involved in HSC formation. Using high-resolution microscopy, the researchers were able to view generating HSCs in the fish's embryos.

This revealed that HSCs require "buddy" cells, known as endotome cells, to help them form.

"The really exciting thing about these results is that if we can find the signals present in the endotome cells responsible for embryonic HSC formation then we can use them in vitro to make different blood cells on demand for all sorts of blood related disorder," Currie concluded.

Currie and her colleagues next plan to identify more of the molecular cues that trigger HSC production.

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