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New research identifies blood ‘factory’ cells

Posted: 09th September 2021

Research led by Professor Louise Purton has made some major strides towards better understanding how blood cells are produced in the bone marrow, with implications for the treatment of blood cancer. The findings were recently published in Blood, the top-ranking journal for blood cell researchers worldwide.

Our bodies create billions of blood cells every day, primarily in the bone marrow. Located in the cavity of bones such as the spine and hip, bone marrow consists of a range of different cell types (including those making bone, fat and cartilage). Together, these cells make up a ‘factory’ for blood cell production.

This blood cell factory is complex, with the different non-blood cell types acting as ‘stations’ along a microscopic production-line. Each station makes different factors that stimulate the growth and maturation of blood-forming cells – ultimately producing platelets, red blood cells and the different types of white blood cells.

While research into these bone marrow factory cells has been underway internationally for almost 20 years, the effort has been hampered by the lack of sophisticated methods to differentiate between the cell types involved. Louise’s research is changing that.

In their study, Louise and her research team and collaborators used their unique knowledge of the distinguishing features of different cells to meticulously sift through the bone marrow contents, eventually isolating and defining four distinct types of cells. They then showed that one of these cell types played a unique role in the development of white blood cells.

“Our findings help us to better understand the body’s normal process for making different types of blood cells, how this changes during the natural ageing process, and how things go wrong in conditions such as leukaemia and other blood cell diseases,” said Louise.

The research was initiated during then-PhD student Dr Alanna (Leni) Green’s studies at SVI. Leni was supported by a Top-up Scholarship during her PhD and is now doing postdoctoral research at the University of Sheffield.

Co-first author with Leni Green on the Blood publication is postdoctoral researcher, Dr Gavin Tjin, who used innovative imaging techniques to show that the factory cells are located in distinct regions within the bone marrow. Gavin has recently been awarded an SVI Rising Star Award to further this work.

“Until now, we lacked methods to identify the different factory cell types,” Louise commented. “This has limited our ability to find new ways to treat conditions that impact blood production.”

“Our results show that the bone marrow factory is incredibly complex – much more so than was previously thought.”

Green AC, Tjin G, Lee SC, Chalk, AM, Straszkowski L, Kwang D, Baker EK, Quach JM, Kimura T, Wu JY, Purton LE, “The characterization of distinct populations of murine skeletal cells that have different roles in B lymphopoiesis”, Blood, 2021; 138, 4: 304-317. 

IMAGE: A high-resolution microscrope image of a region in the growth plate of long bones where the creation of blood cells is underway.

For more information please see: Stem cell regulation