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Waste not, want not
January 2012
by Kelsey Kaustinen  |  Email the author


SAN FRANCISCO—Delivery rooms in hospitals have been the sites of miracles for decades, but now they might hold the potential for miracles of a different sort—and it won't be the mothers or doctors who are the focus of the miracles.  
It will be the umbilical cords.  
The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Cell Technologies business of GE Healthcare Life Sciences have announced a new, $840,000, three-year collaboration aiming at using umbilical cord blood as a source of blood-forming stem cells to treat patients with diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma or sickle cell anemia.  
Each year in the United States alone, more than 14,000 people are diagnosed with diseases that could be treated with a transplant of hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells. The best option for these patients is to replace the diseased blood cells with healthy ones, ideally with a stem cell transplant from the bone marrow or blood of a family member. Unfortunately, about 70 percent of patients lack a family donor, and matching unrelated donors is difficult.  
"We have patients who can't get optimal therapy because we can't find a donor to provide a transplant," Dr. Andrew Leavitt, medical director of the UCSF Adult Blood and Marrow Transplant Laboratory, said in a press release. "For these patients, it's a matter of life and death."   Leavitt, who will lead the project, noted that UCSF specialists perform approximately 190 transplants each year, and the number keeps rising.  
 The collaboration is being funded by a Discovery Grant awarded by the University of California's Office of the President, which is being matched with funds from GE Healthcare. The companies will be seeking chemical compounds that, when added to the stem cells and progenitor cells in cord blood, will increase their population. If they can find such compounds and make the process successful, the number of transplanted cells should be large enough to replace a diseased blood system with a healthy one.
A limitation of cord blood is that while "cord blood transplants have been successfully carried out for many sick children," the transplants do not provide enough stem cells for adult transplants, Dr. Stephen Minger, global head of research and development for Cell Technologies at GE Healthcare, said in a press release. Finding a way to increase hematopoietic stem cells in cord blood, and make the transplants viable for adults, is "something that the world desperately needs," Minger added.  
The blood remaining in umbilical cords and placentas after birth is an excellent potential source of hematopoietic stem cells, and it has several advantages over other methods of procuring stem cells. Cord blood is full of the stem and progenitor cells that create all other cells in the blood system, including white and red cells and platelets, and it does not require as close a match with the tissue type of the patient as bone marrow does. Also, it is free of the ethical debate that surrounds embryonic stem cells, as umbilical cords and placentae are generally discarded as medical waste following birth. Lately, though, cord blood banks are being established in several countries so that cord blood can be donated for future use.  
GE Healthcare Life Sciences will supply an IN Cell Analyzer 2000, a high-tech automated microscope that can screen large numbers of chemicals for their effects on cells, says Minger, and the UCSF team, led by Dr. Michelle Arkin, associate director of the Small Molecule Discovery Center, will conduct the laboratory research to screen their compound library for potential candidates. The project's first year will be spent using ultra-fast, robotic technology to screen 120,000 chemicals, and the IN Cell 2000 will be used to narrow those down to a few potential candidates. In the second year, the scientists hope to move on to testing the best candidates to determine their results in the lab or in animals, and GE's Cell Factory will be used to produce large quantities of cells for additional testing. The hope is that by the end of the project, promising compounds will be on their ways to clinical trials.  
"If compounds were identified that expand the number of stem and progenitor cells in a cord blood sample, and this was shown to be clinically viable, then this could revolutionize cord blood banking," says Minger. "The implications for this emerging era of regenerative [medicine] are hugely exciting."

Code: E011224



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