In one of the biggest breakthroughs in stem cell technology in recent years, scientists in the U.S have found a way to create human blood stem cells in a laboratory.
This could mean a huge step forward for the treatment of blood diseases and leukaemia in the future.
Two separate studies in the U.S appear to have proven this possibility.
The first team, lead by George Daley, began by studying human pluripotent stem cells – a type of cell which can transform into any other cell in the body.
They then identified proteins which control the genes involved in blood production, and applied them to the stem cells. It was found that when five specific proteins were used together, they encouraged the stem cells to become blood stem cells. These stem cells were then transferred to mice, where they went on to produce new red and white blood cells and platelets.
The second team, at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York achieved similar results with stem cells taken from animals’ lungs. In this case, four different factors were founds to encourage their transformation into blood stem cells, which produced the same result when transferred into mice.
The results of the study could be monumental in the treatment of blood diseases and leukaemia. The ability to grow blood stem cells in a lab from an individual’s own cells would remove the need for bone marrow transplants from a donor.
Finding a blood marrow donor can be notoriously difficult – unless an immediate member of the family is identified as a match, the chances of finding a stranger who is a match are very low. They could also be used to create blood for transfusions.
“Both sets of results represent a “breakthrough”, says Carolina Guibentif at the University of Cambridge. “This is something people have been trying to achieve for a long time”
A Way to Go
Although results look very hopeful, the lab-made cells are not yet ready for use on humans. They are not yet as effective as cells in the body at making blood, there is still a risk that the cells could mutate and cause cancer.
However, Daley hopes that this procedure will be honed and could be ready to be used within the next couple of years.
The ultimate hope would be to be able to create a whole blood supply suitable for transfusions. Not only would such a supply be more reliable than that from donors, but it would also be free of disease.
“When new pathogens like Zika pop up, you have to make sure that blood is safe,” says Daley. “We’d be able to have more quality control.”