Breakthrough image could lead to better therapies

Image of a blood stem cell in its natural environment: Photo courtesy UC Merced

When it comes to using stem cells for therapy you don’t just need to understand what kinds of cell to use, you also need to understand the environment that is best for them. Trying to get stem cells to grow in the wrong environment would be like trying to breed sheep in a pond. It won’t end well.

But for years scientists struggled to understand how to create the right environment, or niche, for these cells. The niche provides a very specific micro-environment for stem cells, protecting them and enabling them to self-renew over long periods of time, helping repair damaged tissues and organs in the body.

But different stem cells need different niches, and those involve both physical and chemical properties, and getting that mixture right has been challenging. That in turn has slowed down our ability to use those cells to develop new therapies.

UC Merced’s Joel Spencer in the lab: Photo courtesy UC Merced

Now UC Merced’s Professor Joel Spencer and his team have developed a way of capturing an image of hematopoietic or blood stem cells (HSCs), inside their niche in the bone marrow. In an article on UC Merced News, he says this could be a big step forward.

“Everyone knew black holes existed, but it took until last year to directly capture an image of one due to the complexity of their environment. It’s analogous with stem cells in the bone marrow. Until now, our understanding of HSCs has been limited by the inability to directly visualize them in their native environment.

“This work brings an advancement that will open doors to understanding how these cells work which may lead to better therapeutics for hematologic disorders including cancer.”

In the past, studying HSCs involved transplanting them into a mouse or other animal that had undergone radiation to kill off its own bone marrow cells. It enabled researchers to track the HSCs but clearly the new environment was very different than the original, natural one. So, Spencer and his team developed new microscopes and imaging techniques to study cells and tissues in their natural environment.  

In the study, published in the journal Nature, Spencer says all this is only possible because of recent technological breakthroughs.

“My lab is seeking to answer biological questions that were impossible until the advancements in technology we have seen in the past couple decades. You need to be able to peer inside an organ, inside a live animal and see what’s happening as it happens.”

Being able to see how these cells behave in their natural environment may help researchers learn how to recreate that environment in the lab, and help them develop new and more effective ways of using those cells to repair damaged tissues and organs.

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