Chemo-free stem cell transplants may soon be within reach

Can you imagine a world without chemotherapy or radiation for some cancer treatments? What if there was a way to replace immune systems with new ones—without needing to destroy the unhealthy cells at all?

With new research on stem cell expansion from Stanford and the University of Tokyo, it appears that this potential future could be in the cards.

Why Stem Cell Expansion?

When it comes to stem cell transplants, in which a patient receives healthy cells to replace unhealthy ones, the hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) inside cord blood offer certain benefits over those from other sources like bone marrow. They’re younger, more pristine, and have been less exposed to possible environmental damages.1,2

But there are two issues that pose a challenge when using cord blood stem cells. First, collecting them is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If someone doesn’t preserve their newborn’s stem cells at birth, they’re gone forever. Second, there is only a finite amount that can be collected.

Scientists, determined to bypass this second limitation, have been trying to multiply, or expand, existing stem cells to create more of them to use. In general, more cells mean better treatment outcomes.

What The Research Says

The latest research from scientists at Stanford and the University of Tokyo has shown they were able to multiply HSCs by 900-fold in just one month, suggesting two incredible implications.3

One. It could make stem cell transplantation for certain cancers and genetic diagnoses a more accessible treatment option for millions of people worldwide. Since not everyone can find a matched donor, HSC expansion could allow smaller, more flexibly matched cord blood units to be used.

Two. It could make stem cell transplantation for certain cancers and genetic diagnoses a safer treatment option. Prior to receiving a stem cell transplant for conditions like leukemia or sickle cell anemia, patients usually undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment to destroy the unhealthy cells that are making them sick.

However, this new expansion technique could enable scientists to simply overwhelm the unhealthy cells with large volumes of healthy ones. If it worked, it could potentially remove the need for chemotherapy or radiation altogether in some cancer patients!

Other Expansion Studies Look Positive

Stanford and the University of Tokyo aren’t the only institutions making landmark news in this area. Earlier this year, researchers at Duke University assessed whether they could use expanded cord blood to shorten the time to hematopoietic recovery.

Duke found that, when used in a stem cell transplant, single cord blood units that were multiplied using an agent called nicotinamide reduced the risk of post-transplant infection as well as hospital stay time and associated costs.

Combined, these two groundbreaking studies (along with many others studying HSC expansion) mean that cord blood expansion techniques look poised to potentially improve transplant outcomes—and hopefully benefit regenerative medicine as well!

As always, we’ll keep you posted as the science moves forward. Keep on the lookout for our next article, and don’t forget to share with friends and family!


1. Hao Q, Shah AJ, Thiemann FT, et al. A functional comparison of CD34 + CD38- cells in cord blood and bone marrow. Blood. 1995;86:3745-3753.

2. Liao Y, Geyer MB, Yang AJ, Cairo MS. Cord blood transplantation and stem cell regenerative potential. Exp Hematol. 2011;39:393–412.

3. Wilkinson Adam C., Ishida Reiko, Kikuchi Misako, Sudo Kazuhiro, Morita Maiko, Crisostomo Ralph Valentine, Yamamoto Ryo, Loh Kyle M., Nakamura Yukio, Watanabe Motoo, Nakauchi Hiromitsu, Yamazaki Satoshi. Long-term ex vivo haematopoietic-stem-cell expansion allows nonconditioned transplantation. Nature. 2019;571(7763):117–121. doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1244-x.

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