One little cell can go a very long way—especially if that cell is a blood stem cell. Now two research groups have developed two different methods for growing these cells, a development that could help us understand and fight cancer. The scientists published their papers in the journal Nature.

Hematopoietic, or blood-making, stem cells (HSCs) are extraordinary things, so full of creative potential that a single cell can be used to restore an entire mammal circulatory system. Unfortunately, this same generative power also makes them prone to developing cancer-causing genetic mutations. If we could figure out how these HSCs work, we might be able to separate their skills from their weaknesses.

The most efficient way to access and study these complex cells would be to grow them in the lab. The authors of the new papers present two different approaches that may get us there.

Hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPC) from human iPS cells.Rio Sugimura

The first group, led by Boston-based cancer experts George Daley and Ryohichi Sugimura, used chemical signals and genetic tinkering to transform human pluripotent stem cells into blood cells, and then, from there, into human HSCs.

The second team, led by Weill Cornell Medicine's Shahin Rafii and Raphael Lis, started with blood cells taken from mice, then changed the cells’ genes to coax them into becoming mouse HSCs.

Guibentif & Göttgens 2017. Nature.

Both groups’ freshly minted HSCs were functional, surviving transplant and producing more blood cells once they’d settled in.

Writing in an accompanying News & Views article for Nature, researchers Carolina Guibentif and Berthold Göttgens say both teams’ progress “opens up exciting opportunities” in the field. They note that neither method solves the problem of cancer-causing mutations, and the new cells’ success was only tracked for a short period of time.

Still, “although further studies are needed,” they write, “the long journey to translate the promise of stem-cell research into direct patient benefit may just have become a little shorter.”