Research identifies how infection triggers blood stem cell growth

23 February, 2012

Research at The University of Auckland has shed light on an area of medicine which has intrigued the international scientific community for decades.

Scientists at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences have identified a molecular mechanism which links infection to an increase in rare blood stem cells in an animal.

Their paper was published today in the prestigious Boston-based journal Cell Stem Cell. This high impact journal publishes novel results of unusual significance in the field of stem cell research.

The findings show blood stem and progenitor cells can directly react to inflammatory stress by proliferating and differentiating into the required mature blood cells.

The discovery opens up a field of study into stem cells and how the blood system is "fine-tuned" in response to stressors. This new understanding of exactly how microbes signal to the stem cells has important implications for the treatment of infections and many diseases that have an inflammatory component, including cancer.

"The longer term impact could be significant in terms of how stem cell growth and development can be manipulated therapeutically. There is an international effort aimed at identifying molecules that can be used to boost blood stem cell numbers," says Professor Phil Crosier from the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology.

"People have, for a long time, speculated that there must be some connection between infection and blood stem cell function, yet how the infection communicates to stem cells has been poorly understood. We have identified a novel unexpected mechanism that functions as an important link between infection and stem cell behaviour."

Lead researcher on the two-year study which was funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, Dr Chris Hall, explains that the connection came about through a serendipitous observation: "It was just by chance that during an infection within a zebrafish embryo, we saw that the stem cells had increased. We wanted to understand the mechanism by which this occurred. By exploiting these two areas of research we have used infection as a window to gain unique insights into stem cell behaviour."

The next step in the research process will be to validate the findings in mammals before scientists begin developing drugs which are able to mimic the signal pathways that take place between the infection microbes and the stem cells.

Source: The University of Auckland