Researchers have developed artificial bone marrow, which may be used to reproduce haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) outside of the body in a lab. This breakthrough will enable scientists to study how the behaviour of stem cells can be influenced and controlled by synthetic materials and may facilitate the treatment of leukaemia in a few years.
HSCs are often used for treating blood diseases, such as Leukaemia. Healthy HSCs from an eligible donor are injected into the patient, which then replace the affected cells.
However, not every leukaemia patient can be treated in this way, as the number of appropriate transplants is not sufficient. Also, HSCs can’t exist outside of their natural bone marrow environment (i.e. their stem cell niche), as their properties are then modified. Stem cell reproduction therefore requires an environment similar to the stem cell niche in the bone marrow.
These pitfalls might be solved thanks to the Young Investigators Group for Stem Cell–Material Interactions consisting of scientists from Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT), the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Stuttgart and Tübingen University.
The group artificially reproduced major properties of natural bone marrow at the laboratory. With the help of synthetic polymers, the scientists created a porous structure simulating the sponge-like structure of the bone in the area of the blood-forming bone marrow. In addition, they added protein building blocks similar to those existing in the matrix of the bone marrow for the cells to anchor. The scientists also inserted other cell types from the stem cell niche into the structure in order to ensure substance exchange.
Then, the researchers introduced haematopoietic stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood into this artificial bone marrow. Subsequent breeding of the cells took several days. Analyses with various methods revealed that the cells really reproduce in the newly developed artificial bone marrow. Compared to standard cell cultivation methods, more stem cells retain their specific properties in the artificial bone marrow.
The newly developed artificial bone marrow that possesses major properties of natural bone marrow can now be used by the scientists to study the interactions between materials and stem cells in detail at the laboratory. This will help to find out how the behaviour of stem cells can be influenced and controlled by synthetic materials. This knowledge might contribute to producing an artificial stem cell niche for the specific reproduction of stem cells and the treatment of leukaemia in ten to fifteen years from now.
The research is published in the Biomaterials journal.