Public Release:  How long do stem cells live?

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

LA JOLLA, Calif., March 1, 2011 - When patients receive a bone marrow transplant, they are getting a new population of hematopoietic stem cells. Fresh stem cells are needed when a patient is low on red blood cells, as in anemia, or white blood cells, which can be caused by cancer or even cancer treatments such as irradiation or chemotherapy. The problem is that a bone marrow transplant might not succeed because the transplanted stem cells don't live long enough or because they proliferate too well, leading to leukemia.

To help determine how long a bone marrow (stem cell) graft will last, researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham) have developed a mathematical model that predicts how long a stem cell will live and tested those predictions in a mouse model. The study, led by Christa Muller-Sieburg, Dr. rer. nat., was published online the week of February 28, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It has long been assumed that stem cells are immortal - they continue to self-renew, thus generating more stem cells that collectively can outlast an individual's life," said Dr. Muller-Sieburg, professor in Sanford-Burnham's Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology Program. "But now we have found that each stem cell is pre-programmed to self-renew only for a set amount of time that, in mice, ranges from a few months to several years. So we created a computer program that predicts that lifespan."

Researchers drew blood from transplant recipients, took a few initial measurements of the mature white blood cells generated from the transplant, and entered those parameters into a computer program that predicts their lifespan. This information was then compared to the stem cells' true lifespan. Some stem cells lasted five months and others more than three years, but again and again the computer program predicted survival time with surprising accuracy.

Dr. Muller-Sieburg and her colleagues found that stem cell self-renewal is strictly regulated to successfully negotiate a precarious balance: too much self-renewal results in leukemia, while too little leads to bone marrow failure. This new understanding now allows them to better predict the conditions that lead to normal stem cell proliferation.

Not only are these findings relevant to bone marrow transplants, they could also have implications for regenerative medicine. The safety and efficacy of using embryonic and other stem cells for tissue regeneration will depend on harnessing and precisely controlling their proliferative capacity. By providing a better understanding of how stem cells proliferate, and when they die, this lifespan prediction program could help improve their therapeutic potential for diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions.

Mathematical modeling has other benefits, too. According to lead author Hans Sieburg, Dr. rer. nat, "Computer simulation allows us to generate a hypothesis, make predictions about what should be true, and then better plan our experiments in a way that requires fewer animal experiments."

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This study was funded by the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). For more information about Sanford-Burnham research, visit our blog (http://beaker.sanfordburnham.org) or follow us on Twitter (http://twitter.com/SanfordBurnham).

Original paper

Sieburg HB, Rezner BD, Muller-Sieburg CE. Predicting clonal self-renewal and extinction of hematopoietic stem cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. February 28, 2011.

About Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute is dedicated to discovering the fundamental molecular causes of disease and devising the innovative therapies of tomorrow. Sanford-Burnham, with operations in California and Florida, is one of the fastest-growing research institutes in the country. The Institute ranks among the top independent research institutions nationally for NIH grant funding and among the top organizations worldwide for its research impact. From 1999 - 2009, Sanford-Burnham ranked #1 worldwide among all types of organizations in the fields of biology and biochemistry for the impact of its research publications, defined by citations per publication, according to the Institute for Scientific Information. According to government statistics, Sanford-Burnham ranks #2 nationally among all organizations in capital efficiency of generating patents, defined by the number of patents issued per grant dollars awarded.

Sanford-Burnham utilizes a unique, collaborative approach to medical research and has established major research programs in cancer, neurodegeneration, diabetes, and infectious, inflammatory, and childhood diseases. The Institute is especially known for its world-class capabilities in stem cell research and drug discovery technologies. Sanford-Burnham is a nonprofit public benefit corporation. For more information, please visit www.sanfordburnham.org.

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