Stem Cell Regulation - Understanding diseases of the blood and bone

The first human bone marrow transplants were performed in 1959, on six Yugoslavian nuclear workers whose bone marrow had been damaged in a radiation accident.

Since that time, stem cells have been touted as a cure-all for conditions as diverse as heart disease and male pattern baldness. However, their most successful implementation has remained as a treatment for disorders of the blood and immune systems.

Stem cells are the focus of research in SVI’s Stem Cell Regulation Unit, headed by husband and wife team, Drs Carl Walkley and Louise Purton.

Carl and Louise’s research has broken new ground in understanding diseases of the blood and bone, including cancers such as leukaemia and osteosarcoma. Research carried out by their team has overturned the accepted theory that the cause of all blood diseases lies within the blood cells.

They have shown that defects in the marrow environment, where the blood cells reside as they mature, have the ability to make blood cells become pre-cancerous, and capable of progressing to diseases such as leukaemia.

"Until recently, most doctors focussed only on the blood cell as being the cause of the disease," says Louise. "Hopefully, understanding the true origins of these diseases might lead to better treatments for patients in the future."

Carl’s group also carries out research into a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. Osteosarcoma occurs predominantly in teenagers, and is commonly treated by amputation. Carl has established the first accurate mouse model of this cancer, and is using these mice to try and get a better understanding of how and why the disease develops.

The blood and bone disorders under study in the Stem Cell Regulation Unit have previously proven very difficult to treat successfully. The research being carried out in the Stem Cell Regulation Unit at SVI offers unique insights as to why this has been the case.