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UC San Francisco, GE to Partner on Cord Blood Research

Red blood cell (

Red blood cell (

University of California at San Francisco and and GE Healthcare are collaborating on an R&D project to help overcome the lack of blood-forming stem cells available to patients suffering from several life-threatening diseases. The three-year, $841,000 project aims to make better use of umbilical cord blood gathered at the birth of a baby, which is a rich source of routinely discarded stem cells.

Every year, more than 14,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with diseases such as lymphoma, myeloma, leukemia, or sickle cell anemia that have the potential to be treated with a transplant of hematopoietic, or blood-forming stem cells. These patients need a way to replace diseased with healthy blood cells.

The best option in many cases is a transplant of stem cells from the bone marrow or blood of a closely matched sibling or family member. For at least 70 percent of these patients, however, no matching family donor is available, and finding unrelated donors whose tissue types match is often difficult. These delays or inability to find a closely matched sample can lead to more severe illness or death.

Another source blood-forming stem cells is cord blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta after the birth of a baby. After a birth, the umbilical cord and placenta are usually discarded, but many countries are now establishing cord blood banks to allow parents to donate their baby’s cord blood to bring potentially life-saving treatment to others.

Cord blood has other advantages: It has stem and progenitor cells that make all the other cells in the blood system, including white cells, red cells, and platelets. Cord blood can be collected easily without causing pain or risk to the donor. And cord blood does not need to match the tissue type of the patient receiving it as closely as bone marrow.

One disadvantage of cord blood for adults, however, is that the quantity of stem cells produced in cord blood can be too small, although the number may be adequate for children. On this project, a team led by UCSF’s Andrew Leavitt and Michelle Arkin will seek chemical compounds that can be added to the stem cells and progenitor cells in cord blood to increase their quantity to an extent where they can replace the patient’s diseased blood cells with healthy cells.

Arkin and colleagues from UCSF’s Small Molecule Discovery Center, will use robotic technology like that used in pharmaceutical companies to screen some 120,000 chemicals searching for those that may trigger the expansion of the stem and progenitor cells. An automated microscope — the IN Cell 2000 made by GE — will help identify a tiny fraction (0.1%) of the compounds that look like potential candidates.

Funding for the project will be divided between a Discovery Grant from UCSF and matching funds from GE Healthcare. GE Healthcare says the project is part of its broader vision to develop technologies for the emerging field of regenerative medicine.

Later stages of the project will test the mix of chemical compound candidates discovered and blood in the lab and on animals. Also in later stages, researchers plan to use GE’s Cell Factory service to generate larger quantities of compounds for further testing, and eventually for clinical trials on humans.

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