Live imaging captures how blood stem cells take root in the body

For years, the lab of Leonard Zon, MD, director of the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, has sought ways to enhance bone marrow transplants for patients with cancer, serious immune deficiencies and blood disorders. Using zebrafish as a drug-screening platform, the lab has found a number of promising compounds, including one called ProHema that is now in clinical trials.

But truthfully, until now, Zon and his colleagues have largely been flying blind.

“Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are still very much a black box: cells are introduced into a patient and later on we can measure recovery of their blood system, but what happens in between can’t be seen,” says Owen Tamplin, PhD, in the Zon Lab. “Now we have a system where we can actually watch that middle step.”

The above animation, based on live imaging of naturally transparent zebrafish, reveals a surprisingly dynamic system in which newborn blood stem cells travel through the blood, exit into a “niche” where they get “cuddled” and nurtured, and then proceed to their final blood-making home. Their journey, also described in the January 15 issue of Cell, offers several clues for helping bone marrow transplants “take.”

“The same process occurs during a bone marrow transplant as occurs in the body naturally,” says Zon. “Our direct visualization gives us a series of steps to target, and in theory we can look for drugs that affect every step of that process.”

Read more in the Harvard Gazette.  A more technical version of the video can be viewed on Cell’s website.