UW-Madison researchers find genetic recipe to turn stem cells to blood cells

July 16, 2014

The ability to reliably and safely make in the laboratory all of the different types of cells in human blood is one key step closer to reality. In a study published in Nature Communications, a group led by University of Wisconsin-Madison stem cell researcher Igor Slukvin, PhD, reports the discovery of two genetic programs responsible for taking blank-slate stem cells and turning them into both red and the array of white cells that make up human blood. The research is important because it identifies how nature itself makes blood products at the earliest stages of development. The discovery gives scientists the tools to make the cells themselves, investigate how blood cells develop, and produce clinically relevant blood products.

The researchers identify two distinct groups of transcription factors that can directly convert human stem cells into the hemogenic endothelial cells, which subsequently develop into various types of blood cells. The factors identified by Slukvin’s group were capable of making the range of human blood cells, including white blood cells, red blood cells, and megakaryocytes—commonly used blood products.“By overexpressing just two transcription factors,” Sluvkin says, “we can, in the laboratory dish, reproduce the sequence of events we see in the embryo.” During development, blood cells emerge in the aorta, a major blood vessel in the embryo.

A critical aspect of the work is the use of modified messenger RNA to direct stem cells toward particular developmental fates. The new approach makes it possible to induce cells without introducing any genetic artifacts. By co-opting nature’s method of making cells and avoiding all potential genetic artifacts, cells for therapy can be made safer. Read the article preview.

Read more