Stem cell stories that caught our eye: young blood, cord blood, and blood cancers

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.

Pinning down young blood’s rejuvenating power. A trio of studies in the past week provided more evidence that giving older mice the blood of younger mice can rejuvenate some aspect of their function to a younger state. This has been shown for some years with various tissues, such as CIRM grantee Irina Conboy’s work at UC Berkeley looking at revitalizing older muscle. The recent studies all showed improvement in various aspects of brain function. Most important, the studies started to uncover some reasons for why the young blood could be beneficial when introduced into older animals. Conboy has suggested that one thing it does is provide an environment that lets muscle stem cells do a better job. The three current teams’ work suggests there are probably many factors at play in the young blood. The Boston Globe focused on the work of the Harvard team but puts all three projects in perspective. The San Francisco Business Times focused on the Stanford work and includes an extensive Q&A with the lead researcher.

Expanding cord blood could expand uses. The blood-forming stem cells found in umbilical cord blood have proven extremely valuable as a part of therapy for certain blood cancers. The problem with them is there just are not enough of them in a single cord to treat anyone large than a nine or 10-year-old child. That means when an adult needing a blood stem cell transplant can’t find a matching adult donor and has to resort to cord blood, they receive cells from two cords doubling the chance for severe side effect. Now, a team at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York has found a way to get cord blood stem cells to proliferate in the lab in greater numbers than anyone has in the past. They accomplished the trick by resetting the genetic switches that turn genes on and off. Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News ran a description of the work.

Deciding on banking cord blood. I handle many desperate patient calls here at CIRM, and occasionally get a call from a parent wanting advice about banking their soon-to-be-born child’s cord blood. While I never offer specific advice, I do try to talk through a few factual issues for them to consider, such as the limitation on the number of cells in the cord discussed above. In this Huffington Post blog a mom walks through her family’s decision process for two different pregnancies that came to different, though pretty logical, conclusions for each. She raises many important considerations. However, note that toward the end when she talks about research “advancing” for several diseases, for all those diseases many more years of research will be needed before cord blood therapies become a reality if they ever do.

Blood cancers vs. blood stem cells. One of the difficulties of treating blood cancers is you often end up killing off the vital blood forming stem cells at the same time you destroy the cancer cells. A team at Dartmouth has developed a method to make it easier to distinguish between the stem cells and the cancer cells. Knowing this difference should help researchers find more specific cancer therapies that can destroy the cancer without harming the needed stem cells. Science Codex posted the press release from the medical school. You can read about projects CIRM funds in the field on our leukemia fact sheet.

Don Gibbons

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