The Surprising Ability of Blood Stem Cells to Respond to Emergencies


A research team from Marseille, France has revealed an unexpected role for hematopoietic stem cells (the cells that make blood cells): not only do these cells continuously renew our blood cells, but in emergencies these cells can make white blood cells on demand. that help the body deal with inflammation and infection. This stem cell-based activity could be utilized to protect against infection in patients who are undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

The research team that discovered this previously unknown property of hematopoietic stem cells were from INSERM, CNRS and MDC led by Michael Sieweke of the Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille Luminy and the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine, Berlin-Buch.

Cells in our blood feed, clean, and defend our tissues, but their lifespan is limited. The life expectancy of a red blood cell rarely exceeds three months, our platelets die after ten days and the vast majority of our white blood cells survive only a few days.

Therefore, our bodies must produce replacements for these dying cells in a timely manner and in the right quantities and proportions. Blood cells replacement is the domain of the hematopoietic stem cells, which are nested in the bone marrow; that soft tissue inside long bones of the chest, spine, pelvis, upper leg and shoulder. Bone marrow produces and releases billions of new cells into out blood every day. To do this, hematopoietic stem cells must not only divide but their progeny must also differentiate into specialized cells, such as white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and so on.

For several years, researchers have been interested in how the process of differentiation and specialization is triggered in stem cell progeny. Sieweke and his colleagues discovered in previous work that hematopoietic stem cell progeny are not preprogrammed to assume a particular cell fate, but respond to environmental cues that direct them to become one cell type or another.

Nevertheless, it is still unclear how stem cells respond during emergencies? How are hematopoietic stem cells able to meet the demand for white blood cells during an infection? Recently, the answer was considered clear: the stem cells neither sensed nor responded to the signals sent to induce their progeny to differentiate into particular cell types. They merely proliferated and their progeny responded to the available signals and differentiated into the necessary cell fates. However, Sieweke’s research team has found that rather than being insensitive to these inductive signals meant for their progeny, hematopoietic stem cells perceive these environmental signals and, in response to them, manufacture the cells that are most appropriate for the danger faced by the individual.

Dr. Sandrine Sarrazin, INSERM researcher and co-author of the publication, said, “We have discovered that a biological molecule produced in large quantities by the body during infection or inflammation directly shows stem cells the path to take.”

Sieweke added, “Now that we have identified this signal, it may be possible in the future to accelerate the production of these cells in patients facing the risk of acute infection.” He continued: “This is the case for 50,000 patients worldwide each year who are totally defenseless against infections just after bone marrow transplantation. Thanks to M-CSF [monocyte-colony stimulating factor], it may be possible to stimulate the production of useful cells while avoiding to produce those that can inadvertently attack the body of these patients. They could therefore protect against infections while their immune system is being reconstituted.”

To reach their conclusions the team had to measure the change of state in each cell. This was a terrifically difficult challenge since the stem cells in question are very rare in the bone marrow: only one cell in 10,000 in the bone marrow of a mouse. Furthermore, the hematopoietic stem cells are, by appearance, indistinguishable from their progeny, the hematopoietic progenitor cells. Therefore, this experiment was tedious and difficult, but it proved that M-CSF could instruct single hematopoietic stem cells to differentiate into the monocyte lineage.

The clinical use of M-CSF will hopefully follow in the near future, but for now, this is certainly an exciting finding that may lead to clinical trials and applications in the future.