Forcing Sugars on the Surfaces of Cord Blood Cell Increases Their Engraftment

When a child or adult needs new bone marrow, a bone marrow transplant from a donor is usually the only way to save their life. Without properly functioning bone marrow, the patient’s blood cells will die off, and there will be too few red blood cells to ferry oxygen to tissues or white blood cells to fight off infections.

An alternative to bone marrow from a bone marrow donor if umbilical cord blood. Umbilical cord blood does not require the rigorous tissue matching that bone marrow requires because the blood making stem cells from cord blood are immature and not as likely to cause tissue rejection reactions.. However, umbilical cord blood cells suffer from two drawbacks: low numbers of stem cells in cord blood and poor engraftment efficiencies.

Fortunately, some progress has been made at expanding blood-making stem cells from umbilical cord blood, and it is likely that such technologies might be ready for common use in the future. As to the poor engraftment efficiencies, a new paper in the journal Blood from the laboratory of Elizabeth J. Shpall at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, Texas reports a new way to increase cord blood stem cells engraftment efficiencies.

As previously discusses, delayed engraftment is one of the major limitations of cord blood transplantation (CBT). Delayed engraftment seems to be due to the diminished ability of the cord blood stem cells to home to the bone marrow. How are cells channeled to the bone marrow? A protein receptor called P- and E-selectins is expressed on the surfaces of bone marrow blood vessels. Cells that can bind these selectin receptors will pass from the circulation to the bone marrow. Thus binding selectin receptors is kind of like having the “password” for the bone marrow.

What does it take to bind the selectin proteins? Selectins bind to specific sugars that have been attached to proteins. These sugars are called “fucose” sugars. As it turns out, cord blood stem cells do not express robust levels of these fucosylated proteins. Could increasing the levels of fucosylated proteins on the surfaces of cord blood stem cells increase their engraftment? Shpall and her colleagues tested this hypothesis in patients with blood-based cancers.

Patients with blood cancers had their cancer-producing bone marrow stem cells destroyed with drugs and radiation. Then these same patients had their bone marrows refurbished with two units of umbilical cord blood. However, these cells in these cord blood units were treated with the enzyme fucosyltransferase-VI and guanosine diphosphate fucose for 30 minutes before transplantation. This treatment should have increased the content of fucosylated proteins on the surfaces of cells in the hope of enhancing their interaction with Selectin receptors on the surfaces of bone marrow capillaries.

The results of 22 patients enrolled in the trial were then compared with those for 31 historical controls who had undergone double unmanipulated CBT. There was a clear decrease in the length of time it took for cells to engraft into the bone marrow.  For example, the median time to neutrophil (a type of white blood cell) engraftment was 17 days (range 12-34) compared to 26 days (range, 11-48) for controls (P=0.0023). Platelet (a cell used in blood clotting) engraftment was also improved: median 35 days (range, 18-100) compared to 45 days (range, 27-120) for controls (P=0.0520).  These are significant differences.

These findings support show that treating cord blood cells with a rather inexpensive cocktail of enzymes for a short period of time before transplantation is a clinically feasible means to improve engraftment efficiency of CBT.  This is a small study.  Therefore, these data, though very hopeful, must be confirmed with larger studies.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).