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Hematopoietic History: The First Stem Cell Transplant

Jan 2, 2014 8:00:32 AM / by Maria

Post WWII many soldiers owed their lives to spleen and bone marrow stem cell transplants. Much later we find out that it was the presence of hematopoietic stem cells that was responsible for cell re-population.

As the leading supplier of blood products to healthcare industry, HemaCare has been providing high quality products for over 35 years.  However we are young compared to the science supporting hematopoiesis.  Hematology is one of the oldest forms of medicine.  As a tribute to the legacy of this field, this is the first in a series of posts highlighting where blood cells were critical for advancing healthcare.

Blood cells have built the foundation for many of medicines greatest advances.  Stem cells are one of the most promising and exciting fields in research today.  It is sometimes overlooked that stem cell transplants in the form of bone marrow transplants have been in practice for over 50 years.  But who first thought that introducing precursor blood cells or bone marrow would repopulate a person’s entire blood system?   As is often the case, the finding coincided with other advances in science specifically: Radiation.  

Stem cell transplants saved irradiated soldiers lives following WWII Stem cell transplants saved irradiated soldiers lives following WWII

During World War II, soldiers were exposed to lethal doses of radiation.1  Soldiers were dying due to blood deficiencies.   Transfusions could extend their lives but they needed their entire blood system reconstituted.  These soldiers needed stem cell transplants.  Hypothesizing that the bone marrow and spleen may contain the precursor cells necessary for reconstitution, doctors introduced these cells into the irradiated soldiers and rescued them.   Subsequent animal studies showed that irradiated mice that received bone marrow from healthy mice survived.  Importantly, all blood cells types were reconstituted following the stem cell transplant.2

Following upon this key finding, stem cell transplants between identical twins were successfully performed.  But it took decades before the understanding of the immune response to the graft tissue was understood enabling the technology for use between genetically disparate patients.    

Bone marrow stem cell transplants have become standard of care for many diseases and are used to treat cancer, autoimmune disorders, and many other diseases.  Hematopoietic cells are some of the most versatile and readily accessible cells for manipulation. Hematology has contributed significantly to the understanding of stem cells and the ability to perform stem cell transplants.


1. Regenerative Medicine. Department of Health and Human Services. Chapter 2: Bone Marrow (Hematopoietic) Stem Cells. August 2006.

2. Ford, C. E., Hamerton, J. L., Barnes, D. W. H., and Loutit, J. F. Cytological identification of radiation-chimeras. Nature. 1956. 177:452–4.


Topics: Peripheral blood cells, Stem Cells


Written by Maria

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