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Stem Cell “Switch” Discovered by BC Cancer Agency

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Researchers at the BC Cancer Agency have discovered that blood stem cells undergo a rapid change in their properties early in life, an advance which may eventually lead to better treatments of leukemia and other cancers of the blood system.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study by Dr. Connie Eaves and her team at the BC Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Laboratory shows that the properties of normal blood stem cells in fetal and adult mice are very different and switch from the fetal type to the adult type in a very abrupt fashion a few weeks after birth.

 In addition, their work indicates that the timing of this switch is intrinsically programmed as if a clock were ticking in the fetal stem cells regardless of where they are located.

Previously, it was not clear exactly how fetal and adult blood stem cells differ or when the properties of adult stem cells were acquired. The finding that they remain unchanged until after birth and then suddenly change - all at once - was not expected.

“There have not been many examples of such a profound developmental change in stem cells in the past,” says Dr. Eaves. “It is exciting to see this in the blood system because the types of leukemias that are most common in very young children are different from those that typically occur in adults. It makes one suspicious that this difference may be related to this dramatic developmental change in blood stem cell properties.”

The next step, currently underway at the BC Cancer Agency, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, is to pinpoint the mechanism involved in mediating the switch.

“By understanding how the fetal to adult switch is triggered,” explains David Kent, one of the study’s authors and a graduate student at the BC Cancer Agency, “we may also be able to block it or reverse it. We could then design treatments that would give adult bone marrow cells the greatly increased growth potential that is lost when fetal stem cells undergo the switch.”

Core support for research at the BC Cancer Agency is provided by the BC Cancer Foundation.