Scientists just created the world’s first lab-grown human blood stem cells

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In a breakthrough of potentially enormous importance, researchers have grown the stem cells that produce blood inside a lab for the first time. The advance could help pave the way for both the creation of blood for transfusions, as well as for treating patients with blood disorders using their own cells, instead of having to rely on donor marrow transplants.

“Bone marrow transplants offer a cure to leukemia, sickle cell disease, and a variety of other blood disorders,” Dr. Raphael Lis, from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told Digital Trends. “The problem is that many patients don’t have a well-matched donor to provide the marrow needed to reconstitute their blood with healthy cells. To address this challenge, we and others have been trying to develop reliable, lab-based methods to generate the essential blood-producing component of bone marrow: Hematopoietic stem cells.”

To make their blood stem cells, the Weill Cornell researchers took cells from the walls of animal lungs, and then used a set of four proteins they had identified that encouraged them to form blood stem cells. In an experiment, the reprogrammed blood stem cells were shown to regenerate the entire blood system of mice for the duration of their lifespan, as well as providing a boost to their immune systems.

The results demonstrate a proof-of-concept for efficiently converting the cells that line blood vessels into fully-functioning stem cells, which can be transplanted to provide a lifetime supply of new and healthy blood cells.

“We are now testing our method in large animals,” Lis continued. “We devised a new nonintegrative approach we are currently testing in monkeys in collaboration with the Fred Hutchinson Institute.” Providing that these monkeys show positive results and no sign of hematologic malignancies, Lis said that this “would allow us to push this method one step close to translation to clinic.”

Lis’ team isn’t the only one to experience a breakthrough in this area. Another newly published study coming out of Harvard Medical School started with human pluripotent stem cells, referring to stem cells capable of turning into any other type of cell in the human body. They then applied proteins which they discovered triggered the pluripotent cells to transform into blood stem cells. In tests also involving mice, these produced new red and white blood cells, in addition to platelets.

Taken together, the two projects represent a significant advance. You can read more about the Weill Cornell Medical College study here, and the Harvard Medical School study here.