Some medical therapies have been around for so long that we naturally assume we understand how they work. That’s not always the case. Take aspirin for example. It’s been used for more than 4,000 years to treat pain and inflammation but it was only in the 1970’s that we really learned how it works.
The same is now true for bone marrow transplants. Thanks to some skilled research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Bone marrow transplants have been used for decades to help treat deadly blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. The first successful bone marrow transplant was in the late 1950’s, involving identical twins, one of whom had leukemia. Because the twins shared the same genetic make-up the transplant avoided potentially fatal problems like graft-vs-host-disease, where the transplanted cells attack the person getting them. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that doctors were able to perform transplants involving people who were not related or who did not share the same genetic make-up.
In a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant, doctors use radiation or chemotherapy to destroy the bone marrow in a patient with, say, leukemia. Then cancer-free donor blood stem cells are transplanted into the patient to help create a new blood system, and rebuild their immune system.
In the study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers were able to isolate a specific kind of stem cell that helps repair and rebuild the blood and immune system.
The team found that a small subset of blood stem cells, characterized by having one of three different kinds of protein on their surface – CD34 positive, CD45RA negative and CD90 positive – did all the work.
In a news release Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem, a senior author on the study, says some of their initial assumptions about how bone marrow transplants work were wrong:
“These findings came as a surprise; we had thought that there were multiple types of blood stem cells that take on different roles in rebuilding a blood and immune system. This population does it all.”
Tracking the cells
The team performed bone-marrow transplants on monkeys and then followed those animals over the next seven years, observing what happened as the donor cells grew and multiplied.
They tracked hundreds of thousands of cells in the blood and found that, even though the cells with those three proteins on the surface made up just five percent of the total blood supply, they were responsible for rebuilding the entire blood and immune system.
Study co-author Dr. Jennifer Adair said they saw evidence of this rebuilding within 10 days of the transplant:
“Our ability to track individual blood cells that developed after transplant was critical to demonstrating that these really are stem cells.”
Hope for the future
It’s an important finding because it could help researchers develop new ways of delivering bone marrow transplants that are both safer and more effective. Every year some 3,000 people die because they cannot find a matching donor. Knowing which stem cells are specifically responsible for an effective transplant could help researchers come up with ways to get around that problem.
Although this work was done in monkeys, the scientists say humans have similar kinds of stem cells that appear to act in the same way. Proving that’s the case will obviously be the next step in this research.