MADISON -- For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells can be teased down a developmental pathway to become blood cells.
The work, conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is important because it demonstrates the potential for creating in the laboratory a novel source of blood cells for transplantation and transfusion. The work was reported today, Sept. 3, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Finding out how to direct embryonic stem cells -- blank-slate cells that arise at the earliest stages of development, to become blood, bone, skin, nerve and other cell types -- is one of the biggest technical challenges facing scientists as they work to advance stem cell technology. Learning how blood arises from embryonic stem cells has been a fundamental question in biology.
The accomplishment reported by the Wisconsin scientists shows that undifferentiated stem cells can be coaxed to become primitive types of blood cells that later develop into more mature types of blood cells that, one day, may be used for transfusion or transplant technologies.
"These results show an effective and efficient way to derive blood cells from these early precursors," says Dan Kaufman, a hematology fellow at the UW-Madison Medical School and the lead author of the PNAS paper.
Kaufman emphasizes that while the work shows great promise toward the ultimate goal of taming embryonic stem cells in the lab, the work reported today still represents early-stages of the science and that clinical application remains years in the future.
The new research, however, holds promise for illuminating the process of human development as generic embryonic cells begin down developmental pathways to become any of the 220 types of cells and tissue that make up the human body.