Researchers at the University of Toronto are hoping to make blood stem cell transplants more widely available by expanding umbilical cord blood, according to an article posted on the University website this week.
Blood stem cell transplants are used to treat disorders of the blood, including leukaemia and sickle cell disease. With more than 50,000 transplants now taking place each year, the procedure has become a frontline treatment, yet unlike traditional medicine, regenerative medicine requires a match between the patient and stem cell donor, something that is lacking in up to two-thirds of cases in which a blood stem cell transplant could prove life-saving.
inarguably the most successful and most widely used treatment in regenerative medicine (John Dick, on the importance of blood stem cell transplantation)
John Dick, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto is leading a team of over a dozen scientists and engineers across seven laboratories in an attempt to solve this problem and to make life-saving treatment available to more patients.
Blood stem cells can be collected from the bone marrow, or from the circulating blood. There are more than 12 different types of cells in the blood, and stem cells are rare: only one cell in 100,000 in the bone marrow is a stem cell. One stem cell, however, is incredibly potent and has the power to restore the entire blood system.
The problem is finding a matching donor, especially across ethnicities. Umbilical cord blood overcomes many of the challenges facing regenerative medicine as it can be stored until it is needed. Today around 2,000 blood stem cell transplants a year come from umbilical cord blood, partly because relatively few cells are collected at each birth.
Dick and his team are now exploring the “machinery’ behind the self-renewal of stem cells to expand the number of long-lasting stem cells from cord blood and have made a number of discoveries that make them optimistic that scientists will soon be able to expand both short-term stem cells “for rapid repopulation” and to preserve potent long-term stem cells “for permanent transplant”, thus responding to both needs of blood cancer patients.
In this way, cord blood expansion could dramatically increase patient access to matching stem cells, saving the lives of those suffering from disorders of the blood.
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Images: Jenena Tomic