TUESDAY, June 27, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- New information about the role of bone marrow stem cells could lead to important advances in treating diseases like leukemia, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, scientists say.
Researchers at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, in collaboration with the University of Tokyo, Osaka University and Saga University of Japan, studied the purified bone marrow stem cells of laboratory mice. They discovered that these cells -- once thought to be essentially dormant -- can identify the presence of bacteria and viruses in the blood.
"We have long known that so-called hematopoietic (blood) stem cells create the blood cells that are the front-line soldiers in the body's immune system," study author and foundation researcher Paul Kincade said in a prepared statement. "But we did not believe that infectious agents played an active role in the process," he added.
Once the infectious agents have been identified, the stem cells begin defending the body against these foreign pathogens -- a fact that surprised the scientists.
"What we have now discovered is that these stem cells have a sort of antennae that detect bacteria and viruses," said Kincade. "And when stem cells receive these distress signals, they spring to action, creating cells the body most needs early in life-threatening situations," he said.
That could mean very good news for patients with autoimmune diseases. Understanding the role of these stem cells means that scientists one day may be able to figure out how to manipulate these stem cells to benefit such patients.
"It may be possible to boost immunity when necessary and also shut down inappropriate responses. That could provide a powerful tool to fight cancer, lupus and many other diseases," Kincade said.
The findings appear in the June issue of the journal Immunity.
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions have more information on autoimmune diseases.