The Nooks and Crannies in Bone Marrow that Nurture Stem Cells


Stems cells in our bodies often require a specific environment to maximize their survival and efficiency. These specialized locations that nurture stem cells is called a stem cell niche. Finding the right niche for a stem cell population can go a long way toward growing more stem cells in culture and increasing their potency.

To that end, a recent discovery has identified the distinct niches that exist in bone marrow for hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which form the blood cells in our bodies.

A research team from Washington university School of Medicine in St. Louis has shown that stem niches in bone marrow can be targeted, which may potentially improve bone marrow transplants and cancer chemotherapy. Drugs that support particular niches could encourage stem cells to establish themselves in the bone marrow, which would greatly increase the success rate of bone marrow transplants. Alternatively, tumor cells are known to hide in stem cell niches, and if drugs could disrupt such niches, then the tumor cells would be driven from the niches and become more susceptible to chemotherapeutic agents.

Daniel Link, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Medicine at Washington University, said, “Our results offer hope for targeting these niches to treat specific cancers or to impress the success of stem cell transplants. Already, we and others are leading clinical trials to evaluate whether it is possible to disrupt these niches in patients with leukemia or multiple myeloma.”

Working in mice, Link and his colleagues deleted a gene called CXCL12, only in “candidate niche stromal cell populations.” CXCL12 which encodes a receptor protein known to be crucial for maintaining HSC function, including retaining HSCs in the bone marrow, controlling  HSCs activity, and repopulating the bone marrow with HSCs after injury.

CXCL12 crystal structure
CXCL12 crystal structure

CXCL12 signaling pathways

In bone marrow, HSCs are surrounded by a whole host of cells, and it is difficult to precisely identify which type of cells serve as the niche cells. These bone marrow cells are known collectively as “stroma,” but there are several different types of cells in stroma. Cells that have been implicated in the HSC niche include endosteal osteoblasts (osteoblasts are bone-making cells and the endosteum in the layer of connective tissue that lines the inner cavity of the bone), perivascular stromal cells (cells that hang out around blood vessels), CXCL12-abundant reticular cells, leptin-receptor-positive stromal cells, and nestin–positive mesenchymal progenitors. Basically, there are a lot of cells in the stroma and figuring out which one is the HSC niche is a big deal.

bone marrow stromal cells

When HSCs divide, they form two cells, one of which replaces the HSC that just divided and a new cells called a hematopoietic progenitor cell (HPC), which can divide and differentiate into either a lymphoid progenitor or a myeloid progenitor. The lymphoid progenitor differentiates into either a B or T lymphocyte and the myeloid progenitor differentiates into a red blood cell, or other types of white blood cells (neutrophil, basophil, macrophage, platelet or eosinophil). As the cells become more differentiated, they lose their capacity to divide.

HSC differentiation

Deleting CXCL12 from mineralizing osteoblasts (bone making cells) did nothing to the HSCs or those cells that form lymphocytes (lymphoid progenitors). Deletion of Cxcl12 from osterix-expressing stromal cells, which include CXCL12-abundant reticular cells and osteoblasts, causes mobilization of hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) from the bone marrow into the bloodstream, and loss of B-lymphoid progenitors, but HSC function is normal. Cxcl12 deletion from blood vessel cells causes a modest loss of long-term repopulating activity. Deletion of Cxcl12 from nestin-negative mesenchymal progenitors causes a marked loss of HSCs, long-term repopulating activity, and lymphoid progenitors. All of these data suggest that osterix-expressing stromal cells comprise a distinct niche that supports B-lymphoid progenitors and retains HPCs in the bone marrow. Also, the expression of CXCL12 from stromal cells in the perivascular region, including endothelial cells and mesenchymal progenitors, supports HSCs.

Link summarized his results this way: “What we found was rather surprising. There’s not just one niche for developing blood cells in the bone marrow. There’s a distinct niche for stem cells, which have the ability to become any blood cell in the body, and a separate niche for infection-fighting cells that are destined to become T cells and B cells.”

These data provide the foundation for future investigations whether disrupting these niches can improve the effectiveness of cancer chemotherapy.

In a phase 2 study at Washington University, led by oncologist Geoffrey Uy, assistant professor of medicine, Link and his team are evaluating whether the drug G-CSF (granulocyte colony stimulating growth factor) can alter the stem cell niche in patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and whose disease is resistant to chemotherapy or has recurred. The FDA approved this drug more than 20 years ago to stimulate the production of white blood cells in patients undergoing chemotherapy, who have often weakened immune systems and are prone to infections.

Uy and his colleagues want to evaluate G-CSF if it is given prior to chemotherapy. Patients enrolled at the Siteman Cancer Center will receive G-CSF for five days before starting chemotherapy, and the investigators will determine whether it can disrupt the protective environment of the bone marrow and make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy.

This trial is ongoing, and the results are not yet in, but Link’s work has received a welcome corroboration of his work. A companion paper was published in the same issue of Nature by Sean Morrison, the director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Morrison and his team used similar methods as Link and his colleagues and came to very similar conclusions.

Link said, “There’s a lot of interest right now in trying to understand these niches. Both of these studies add new information that will be important as we move forward. Next, we hope to understand how stem cells niches can be manipulated to help patients undergoing stem cell transplants.”