Australian researchers have made what some are calling one of the most significant discoveries in the history of stem cell research.
Thanks to a recent study involving zebrafish, researchers have uncovered how hematopoietic stem cells, one of the most critical types of stem cells, are formed. These cells, also known as HSCs, are essential in replenishing the body’s supply of blood and immune cells and are key in transplants for patients with blood cancers. The cells are thought to have the potential to treat a range of conditions because of their ability to transform into muscle, bone and blood vessels.
An understanding of how these cells develop and regenerate is considered by many to be the “holy grail” of stem cell research and has applications for the treatment of spinal cord injuries, diabetes and degenerative diseases.
The research team, led by Professor Peter Currie, from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Victoria’s Monash University, was able to uncover a major part of the cells development—something that had previously been a mystery to scientists. The team had originally been studying muscle mutations in zebrafish but upon closer examination, they came across something perhaps more significant. Thanks to transparent larvae of the fish, they noticed that a “buddy cell” appeared to help in the formation of HSCs. These helper cells, known as Endotome cells, act as a “comfy sofa for pre-HSCs to snuggle into, helping them progress and even become fully fledged stem cells,” explained Currie.
Currie said the focus of research can now turn towards finding the signals present in Endotome cells responsible for HSC formation in the embryo.
“Then we can use them in the lab to make different blood cells on demand for all sorts of blood-related disorders,” he said.
While some are in fact calling this discover the “holy grail” of stem cell research, there is still some work to be done. Said Georgina Hollway of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, “It’s difficult to say exactly how close we are, but we have uncovered a vital step in the process.”
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