Magazine article Science News

Blood Cells Form Liver, Nerve Cells. (Stem Cell Surprise)

Magazine article Science News

Blood Cells Form Liver, Nerve Cells. (Stem Cell Surprise)

Article excerpt

A person's blood could someday provide replacement cells for that individual's damaged brain or liver, a provocative study suggests. Human blood contains so-called stem cells that can be transformed outside the body into a variety of cell types, according to the report. This unexpected, and accidental, discovery may add a new element to the politicized debate over whether stem cells that persist in adults can match the therapeutic potential of stem cells derived from human embryos.

The possible new source of adult stem cells came to light when a coworker became ill and couldn't attend to petri dishes containing human blood cells called monocytes, says Eliezer Huberman of Argonne (Ill.) National Laboratory. In the body, these white blood cells migrate into tissues and mature into specialized immune cells, such as macrophages. Huberman's team has been studying the cellular signals behind this maturation.

Left without nutrients, some of the unattended monocytes morphed into cells that didn't look like immune cells, Huberman's team noticed. Following up on this chance observation, the researchers identified a subgroup of monocytes that they could convert into various kinds of cells.

For example, exposing these select monocytes to a chemical called nerve growth factor transformed about 90 percent of them into cells with the shape and projections characteristic of nerve cells. These cells also contained typical nerve cell proteins and enzymes, the researchers report in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using different growth factors, Huberman and his colleagues found that they could also readily switch the isolated monocytes into what appear to be liver cells, blood vessel cells, and immune cells unrelated to monocytes or macrophages.

The researchers speculate that the versatile monocytes they've identified help the human body repair itself. …

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