Zebrafish with blood cells shown as purple dots stretching the length of its body.
Zebrafish with blood cells shown as purple dots stretching the length of its body. Photo via health.ucsd.edu

UC San Diego researchers announced Monday they may have stumbled across a method to develop bone marrow transplant cells in a laboratory dish during a study of blood cell development in zebrafish.

The researchers were studying blood cell development in zebrafish because their blood stem cell development processes are identical to that of a human but their body and embryos are transparent for easier observation.

Researchers studied the role the Wnt family of molecules plays in the zebrafish’s blood cell development and discovered the importance of the epidermal growth factor receptor, a catalytic molecule in blood stem cell development.

According to the study, blood stem cells develop when the signaling molecule Wnt9a causes EGFR to interact with a receptor protein, triggering a series of events necessary for a stem cell to transform into a standard blood cell.

The discovery of EGFR’s importance may open the door to the ability to create bone marrow transplants, comprising blood stem cells, in a Petri dish, according to the researchers. Currently, blood disease patients can only receive bone marrow transplants from donors, who are often in short supply.

The study was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

“Previous attempts to develop blood stem cells in a laboratory dish have failed, and that may be in part because they didn’t take the interaction between EGFR and Wnt into account,” said Stephanie Grainger, the study’s first author and an assistant project scientist at the UCSD School of Medicine.

The researchers plan to conduct further research to determine if its possible to manipulate the interaction between Wnt9a and EGFR to develop blood stem cells in a laboratory setting, making bone marrow donors unnecessary.

The researchers also intend to determine how the communication between blood stem cell molecules and receptors may affect cancer cell development, which can hijack the same development processes.

“This is a great example of how working in one area of biology can have a huge impact on a seemingly unrelated process,” said Karl Willert, the study’s co-senior author. “In this case, we were studying Wnt’s role in blood development and we landed smack in the middle of the EGFR-cancer field.”

— City News Service

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