Stem cell study identifies genes that may better the odds for people with blood disorders

Research findings may also help in the treatment of sickle cell anemia, HIV, and some forms of cancer.

Chris Arnold 3 minute read March 7, 2022
device stem cells transplantation

A better understanding of how the genes involved in Hematopoietic stem cells work will give scientists a better shot at manipulating them for medical use. GETTY

Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are capable of renewing themselves, and transforming into various other types of mature blood cells, making them a prime candidate for disease treatment research. However, not much is known about the process of transplanting HSCs into another person. 

But researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University School of Medicine have found some genes expressed by HSCs that can survive the process, which means better odds of treatment for patients. 

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications this week. 

In adults, HSCs are usually found in the bone marrow or the bloodstream. Before birth, however, they’re found even more often in the liver, where they can multiply and transform into different types of cells. This process can be seen to an even greater degree in the fetal liver of animals. 

The hope with this research is that scientists will be able to expand the cells outside of the body, or to transform other types of stem cells into the right type of cell that could potentially aid the bloodstream. 

Scientists examined the gene patterns that are unique to these stem cells and combined their information with a number of experiments to fully understand the protein expression. The scientists were looking to determine why these bone marrow cells were so much better at adapting when in the liver, if they’re not found there in grown adults. 

“This in-depth analysis revealed that these stem cells express a protein on their surface called CD201 that correlates very closely with this engraftment potential and can be used to isolate functional stem cells away from other cell types,” Alejandro B. Balazs, co-senior author of the study said in a statement. “This will help us improve the process of bone marrow and stem cell transplantation by allowing us to purify these cells.”

The protein CD201 is typically found in blood clots caused by venom, or in fetal loss during pregnancy, according to a 2004 study.  

A better understanding of how the genes involved in HSCs work will give scientists a better shot at manipulating them for medical use. Potential treatments could include sickle cell anemia, HIV, and even some forms of cancer. 

Using techniques that allowed researchers to assess surface level activity on the cell, and RNA sequencing simultaneously, they were able to find that CD201 is a significant target for engraftment potential, the study reads. 

Engraftment is when the blood forming cells that are received during a transplant start to grow and develop more healthy blood cells. 

“Altogether, this work has resulted in a detailed blueprint of the most potent blood stem cells and will lead to a better understanding of why these cells have such an extraordinary regenerative capacity,” Kim Vanuytsel, lead author of the study said. “Such insights will allow us to create safer and more efficient therapies for patients suffering from blood disorders.”

The work between Boston University and MGH was critical for sharing both resources and information, George Murphy, co-senior author of the study said. 

“This project is also a shining example of ‘open source biology’ at work where the freely shared information and insights can be harnessed by all for future discovery,” Murphy said. 

In 2018, there were almost 23,000 hematopoietic cell transplants in the United States, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration.

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based writer.

Thank you for your support. If you liked this story, please send it to a friend. Every share counts.