A tale of two labs: collaborating scientists uncover how cancer stem cells remake bone marrow cavities

This tale begins at Stanford (and CIRM) and follows our two scientific heroines to opposite sides of the country, where together they made a discovery that might explain how cancer stem cells actually promote leukemia in bone marrow.

Normally, blood stem cells are able to outcompete leukemia cells in the bone marrow cavity where they are produced. However, the researchers found that cancer stem cells, like a nightmare contractor, remodel the bone marrow cavity so it’s more favorable for leukemia cells and less hospitable for healthy blood stem cells. Leukemia cells can move in and proliferate in the renovated bone marrow cavity.

Emmanuelle Passegue, a CIRM grantee at UCSF

The senior authors on the study, Amy Wagers and CIRM grantee Emmanuelle Passegue met at Stanford as postdoctoral researchers in the lab of Irving Weissman (another CIRM grantee) more than a decade ago. As they settled into their new labs on opposite coasts – Wagers at Harvard and Passague at UCSF — they managed to keep in touch with each other’s work – at first, mostly due to annual junior faculty conferences funded by CIRM and Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute. As their collaboration deepened, they traded methods, supplies and even shuttled postdoctoral researchers between their labs.

In a press release, Passegue described how cancer stem cells do their damage,

“They remodel the microenvironment so that it is basically callous, kicking the normal stem cells out of the bone marrow and encouraging the production of even more leukemic cells”

The study was published online in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell last week.

This finding could lead to new targets for cancer drug therapies. Currently, the only treatment for late stage leukemia is bone marrow transplants – and only one in four succeeds in beating back the disease.

Amy Wagers of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute

This finding is just one example of the collaborations CIRM tries to foster between stem cell scientists. CIRM’s collaborative grants include funding commitments from agencies outside the state to encourage California’s stem cell scientists to collaborate with colleagues in other states and countries. We also sponsor Disease Team grants to encourage scientists from multiple institutions to bring promising therapies to the clinical trial phase. Our annual grantee meeting and workshops on special topics – including the most recent one on Parkinson’s disease – are another chance for CIRM-funded scientists to meet one another and forge connections.

The next HSCI/California Junior Faculty Symposium – the meeting that helped Passague and Wagers stay connected – will be in November at UCLA.

Rina Shaikh-Lesko

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