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Iowa State researchers to study ways to generate human blood stem cells using zebrafish

Iowa State researchers are using zebrafish to study creating human blood stem cells in a lab.
Lynn Ketchum/Oregon State University
Iowa State researchers are using zebrafish to study creating human blood stem cells in a lab.

Iowa State researchers have received a $2 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the production of blood stem cells in zebrafish.

Researchers hope it’s a step toward eventually growing cells that can be used to fight disease in humans.

Blood stem cells are used to treat diseases like blood cancers and anemia in humans.

But finding a matching human donor to transplant healthy stem cells, which are formed in embryos, is extremely hard, said Raquel Espin Palazon, an assistant professor in ISU's Genetics, Development and Cell Biology Department. She's leading the study.

"They have to be similar, and that's why so difficult," Espin Palazon said. "First, there's there are not a lot of donors. Second, they have to match your cell types."

She said scientists currently can’t generate quality cells in a laboratory setting.

"We can make blood cells in the dish, right now — human blood cells — but they don't have the properties of true blood stem cells. They don't produce all the blood cell types that we need," she said.

Espin Palazon said in her previous research, she’s found inflammation signals from cells - triggered by illness or an injury, but also seen in embryonic development - could be the missing ingredient in generating usable blood stem cells in a lab.

"People were not looking at, oh, actually, you need to add these inflammatory signals...to activate the inflammatory pathways during embryonic development or in the dish to make blood stem cells," she said.

The ISU team is going to first study zebrafish because their embryos develop externally and are transparent, and they share more than 70 percent of their genes with humans.

Espin Palazon said the goal is to figure out when the inflammatory signals are needed to turn the zebrafish embryotic cells into blood stem cells, then the team will start working on creating human blood stem cells in a lab.

"We know they're needed," she said. "But we just don't know what they're doing. We don't know when to add them."

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter
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