UW-Madison scientists have coaxed blood cells, including some from a patient with leukemia, into embryonic-like stem cells, which could improve the understanding and treatment of blood cancers such as leukemia.

The discovery by researcher Igor Slukvin and his campus colleagues is the second disease model created at the university involving induced pluripotent stem cells, co-discovered in 2007 by university stem cell pioneer James Thomson.

The development should allow scientists to see what goes awry in blood cells when leukemia and similar diseases form, enabling the researchers to better fight the conditions, Slukvin said.

"It provides a new model for the study of cancer stem cell development," said Slukvin, who is reporting on his findings in Friday's online edition of the journal Blood.

Slukvin used an improved method of making induced stem cells — announced in 2009, also by Thomson — that removes the risk of genetic mutations that could cause cancer.

Slukin inserted key genes into banked bone marrow and umbilical cord blood cells to reprogram the cells back to their embryonic state, when they are believed capable of becoming any of the 220 cell types in the body. Instead of using viruses to deliver the genes, as Thomson and a Japanese researcher did in 2007, Slukvin used rings of DNA called plasmids, the method Thomson announced two years later.

Induced stem cells are similar to embryonic stem cells, which Thomson was the first grow in a lab in 1998, but their creation doesn't require the use or destruction of embryos. Induced cells are crafted from a donor's cells, so they can be genetically matched to patients, reducing the risk of immune system rejection of potential therapies developed from the cells.

Numerous disease models have been created around the world using induced stem cells, and several UW-Madison researchers are developing models for heart, eye and bone diseases and other conditions. But the only other model confirmed at the university is for spinal muscular dystrophy, which paralyzes children and usually kills them by age 2. Clive Svendsen, now at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, announced that model in 2008 while at UW-Madison.

Nearly 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with blood cancers each year, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Researchers typically use animal models to study the diseases, but those don't always replicate the conditions well, Slukvin said.

Reprogrammed cells retain the genetic abnormalities found in patients, Slukvin said. So the new cells should help scientists see how the diseases form at their earliest stages, paving the way for drug screening and better therapies, he said.

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