Breakthrough Discovery On The Origin Of Red Blood Cells
A new discovery about the origin of red blood cells could help cancer patients and anemic patients.
Researchers now know that the hormone EPO (erythropoietin), which binds to cells in the bone marrow and turns them into oxygen-carrying red blood cells, originates from specific kidney cells.
This process enables the creation of two to three million red blood cells per second, all of which are carried to our organs and keep them functioning.
Ido Amit of the Weizmann Institute of Science, who led the research, named them Norn cells, after the mythological Norse that were believed to spin the threads of fate.
He believes this discovery may be as big as when scientists determined that the pancreas can produce insulin.
“In the future, new approaches may be developed to reactivate malfunctioning Norns or to renew their population in the kidneys, similarly to newly developed therapies in which insulin-producing beta cells are being reintroduced into the pancreas of people with diabetes.”
The breakthrough could be used to boost the red blood cell count of cancer patients before surgery. They normally receive blood infusions to enhance their red blood cell count, which can negatively affect the immune system and hinder their ability to fight cancer in the long run.
Treatments can also be developed from this discovery to help patients with chronic kidney diseases that impair their EPO production (more than 10 percent of the population), and result in anemia that can be lethal.
The only way to currently treat people with this kind of anemia is by combining two different DNA molecules to produce a new genetic combination.
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It was immensely difficult to find out which cells produced EPO because the hormone is not stored in cells, but is instead rapidly produced and released in response to a lack of oxygen.
The researchers used sophisticated technologies to determine this, which included advanced techniques that allow for the study of tens of thousands of individual cells simultaneously – and thus the identification of rare types of cells in tissues.
Even then, exposing the Norn cells was a significant challenge, as each one produces very small amounts. In 3,000 kidney cells that were studied, they found fewer than 40 cells actively producing EPO.
Prof. Roland Wenger of the University of Zurich, who collaborated on the new study, said: “Its production in each cell spikes and rapidly diminishes, which is the main reason why the identification of these cells was so challenging,” He has been researching EPO production process for the past 30 years.
“For decades, their identity was highly contested, and throughout the years, almost every cell in the kidneys was erroneously identified as the producer of EPO.”
EPO is most infamous for its illegal use as a doping agent in sports, most notably by the cyclist Lance Armstrong, who took a synthetic version to cheat his way to seven consecutive Tour de France wins.
The human body produces two to three million oxygen-carrying red blood cells, or erythrocytes, each second – about one-quarter of all the new cells produced in the body at any one time.
The research was published in the academic journal Nature Medicine.