Health In Focus
  • Scientists find switch that harnesses the power of cord blood.
  • The switch increases the amount of stem cells.
  • This can be used in the treatment of blood cancer patients
Stem cells are immature cells that have the potential to develop into different types of cells. Adults have stem cells in their bone marrow that mature into various blood cell types depending upon the requirement.
Genetic Switch That Increases Stem Cells in Cord Blood Identified
Genetic Switch That Increases Stem Cells in Cord Blood Identified

Patients suffering from leukemia, some lymphomas or even multiple myelomas require chemotherapy that is aimed at killing the cancer cells. However, in the process, stem cells from the bone marrow are also completely destroyed. This results in the body's inability to make blood that is essential for life. Such patients require stem cell transplants to aid their body in making its own blood.

Use of Stem Cell Transplant in Blood Cancer Patients
  • Stem cell transplant will aid in providing normal blood cells for the cancer patients and aid in sustaining life.
  • The newly transplanted stem cells will host better immune cells against the cancer cells, this is called graft-versus-cancer cells.
There are three different ways from which stem cells are transplanted:
Stem cell transplant to blood cancer patients is carried out after immune matching with an adult, this involves a long waiting period, with only one-third of patients receiving this treatment.

Dr. John Dick, principal investigator of the study on stem cells says "About 40,000 people receive stem cell transplants each year, but that represents only about one-third of the patients who require this therapy. That's why there is a big push in research to explore cord blood as a source because it is readily available and increases the opportunity to find tissue matches. The key is to expand stem cells from cord blood to make many more samples available to meet this need. And we're making progress."

The drawback in using stem cells from cord blood is that very few stem cells are available. However, the current study by Dr. Dick and colleagues hopes to harness the power of the cord blood in providing stem cells.

First Discovery Of Stem Cells

Dr. John Dick is a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Two scientists, late Dr. Ernest McCulloch and Dr. James Till discovered the first stem cell in 1961. Their discovery has led to a separate branch of biology that deals with stem cell research, in lieu of the huge potential in medical research.

Discovery of Purest Stem Cell by Dr John Dick

In 2011 Dr. Dick and colleagues isolated stem cells in the purest form that could
  • Give rise to entire range of blood cells
  • Opened doorways to tapping into the potential of stem cells in treating diseases.
Genetic Switch for Stem Cells

When stem cells are isolated and they grow and divide, they have the unique ability to form any one of the 10 different types of blood cells. However, they lose the capacity to self renew. They develop into blood cells and stop being stem cells.

When Dr. Dick and colleagues studied the mechanism of transformation they found that microRNA- mi125a formed a genetic switch that was turned off in progenitor cells. This resulted in stem cells losing their self- renewal property.

This genetic switch provides a key link to discovering the huge potential of stem cells in the treatment of diseases.

Dr. Dick says "Our work shows that if we artificially throw the switch on in those downstream cells, we can endow them with stemness and they basically become stem cells and can be maintained over the long term".

Significance of the Study
  • The study highlights the presence of a genetic switch that is turned off in the progenitors of stem cells.
  • Provides hope for treatment of serious illnesses like blood cancer. Every 4 minutes one person is diagnosed with blood cancer every year.
References :
  1. Why are Stem Cell Transplants Used as Cancer Treatment? - (
  2. Leukemia Statistics - (
Source: Medindia

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