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Discovery: Bone Marrow Cell Can Morph Into Liver, Lung, Gut, Skin, More

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

May 3, 2001 -- Researchers have at last found a cell that may be able to repair any part of the body. The breakthrough finding -- from mouse studies -- offers hope for treating human diseases now considered incurable.

"The amazing finding is that there are cells in the bone marrow that can be all of these things -- liver and lung and gut and skin and more," lead study author Diane S. Krause, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. Krause is director of the Yale University Frisbee Laboratory for Hematopoietic Graft Engineering in New Haven, Conn.

"We are a long way from using these to treat people, but now we can start to think about ways to test these cells in injury/repair models of a lot of important diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and myocardial infarction," co-author Saul Sharkis, PhD, tells WebMD. "These purified, special cells may very well be able to be used in an approach to human disease. That is extremely exciting for all of us."

Sharkis is director of the experimental hematopoiesis program at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University.

"The big news is that with all the recent stuff about adult stem cells having a wider range of potential, this is the first time anyone has shown an adult stem cell is capable of giving rise to any portion of the body," says co-author Neil D. Theise, MD, associate professor of pathology at New York University Medical School.

Other researchers are excited about the findings, too -- although as scientists, they would like to see more proof.

"The study ... raises the very interesting and potentially important possibility that transplanted [blood] stem cells may give rise to a wide variety of cell types in different organs," Sean J. Morrison, PhD, tells WebMD. "If so ... this might open new avenues for repairing ... tissues or for performing gene therapy outside the [blood] system."

Morrison is assistant professor of internal medicine and cell and developmental biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"Krause [and his colleagues] have demonstrated that a single bone-marrow-derived cell can make significant donor-derived contributions to ... multiple tissues after transplantation," Gerald Spangrude, PhD, tells WebMD. Spangrude, a stem-cell expert, is assistant professor at the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute.

A New Rule Book

All of this is impossible, according to the current rules of biology.

The textbooks say that only an embryo has stem cells that can turn into any type of cell. Adults are only supposed to have more mature stem cells destined to become specific organs or types of tissue.

Recently, however, several different laboratories have shown that pieces of one organ -- the bone marrow -- can give rise to cells of other organ such as the brain and the liver.

But what was in the original piece of tissue? Maybe there were cells in the batch that were already destined to be another type of organ. To rule this out, scientists have to find the single adult cell capable of changing into another type of adult cell. Nobody has been able to do this -- and then Sharkis came up with an idea.

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