Stem cell stories that caught our eye: leukemia, blood platelets, fetal stem cells staying with mom

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Pre-leukemia stem cell found. A collaboration including CIRM funded researchers at Stanford and the Canadian Cancer Stem Cell Consortium looked closely at the genetics of blood stem cells in the period prior to leukemia developing and found a new type of stem cell that may be the culprit in initiating the disease and in its return after therapy. They found pre-leukemic stem cells that function like blood stem cells but grow abnormally. The fact that they don’t display the appearance of cancer cells may allow them to evade chemotherapy and set the stage for them seeding new cancers.


In a nice turn of fate, the Canadian who led the study, John Dick, was the scientist who first isolated the fully formed leukemia stem cells in 1994. This new earlier form of the cell immediately becomes a potential target for early detection of the cancer and early treatment. The discovery was discussed this morning on Medical News Today, which included a video interview with Dr. Dick. The CIRM-funded team in this collaboration expects to begin a clinical trial later this year using an antibody therapy to block the protein on the surface of cancer stem cells that shields them from chemotherapy.

Platelets aplenty from stem cells. A Japanese team has found an efficient way to generate an unheralded part of our blood stream, the platelets that stop bleeding after a cut. The journal Science writing about the discovery published in Cell Stem Cell, had a great line describing them, “the sandbags of the circulatory system.”

Those sand bags are in increasing demand as cancer therapies deplete patients’ own supplies and create the need for transfused platelets. But donor platelets cannot be stored frozen and have a shelf life of only a few days. So, many teams have tried making them from iPS type and embryonic stem cells. While they have succeeded, they didn’t get enough for transfusion. Platelets themselves are not cells. They are fragments of cells called megakaryocytes, which have been hard to grow in quantities. Now the Japanese team has used drugs to stimulate the activity of three genes that prompt the cells to grow and continue growing in the lab for up to five months producing a ready source of platelets.

Fetal stem cells remain in mom. A University of Connecticut researcher presented data at the International Stroke Conference in San Diego Wednesday suggesting that moms who have had a stroke may call on an unusual repair kit: fetal stem cells still circulating years after a child was born. We have known for some time that fetal cells often stay with the mom, not in all cases, but estimates suggest that somewhere between 40 percent and 70 percent of mothers carry this remembrance of their pregnancy. The current study adds to a small, but growing set of data suggesting the cells can help mom when she needs a repair. Liz Szabo at USA Today did a nice job explaining the work.

TED book on the mighty cell. The TED Book series has issued a volume titled “Super Cells” that makes the argument that we are entering a technological revolution in which cells become our partners in invention. Today’s TED Blog published an excerpt on a fun chapter focusing on labs that have teamed up with artists to create cell-based art. It briefly describes a series of projects by individuals described as bioartists. Just fun stuff for a Friday.

Don Gibbons

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