Molecule Increases Growth of Stem Cells, Research Suggests

Recently published results from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s first-ever clinical trials have identified a molecule that could increase the success rates of umbilical cord blood transplants in cancer patients.

The trials found that umbilical cord blood cells treated with 16, 16-dimethyl prostaglandin E2, a molecule derived from fatty acids and also called dmPGE2, grew more stem cells than untreated umbilical cord blood.

Stem cell growth is particularly promising in the treatment of cancer, which is marked by rapid proliferation of mutated cells and the death of functional, important tissue. Stem cell transplants usually face stringent blood type matching requirements, which can often hinder a patient’s ability to find a viable donor.

Umbilical cord transplants improve flexibility and safety, however, since blood does not need to be exactly matched and has had less exposure to viruses. Successful implementation of the dmPGE2 molecule could help the approximately 50 to 60 percent of stem cell transplant patients who do not have siblings with a matching blood type.

Led by Leonard I. Zon, chairman of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute Executive Committee and professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, researchers at the HSCI discovered that dmPGE2 spurred stem cell growth through laboratory experiments on zebrafish and then mice. Zon and his team then approached the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital to conduct clinical trials.


The HSCI has several ongoing projects, but researchers’ work on the dmPGE2 molecule is “one of the special projects in the lab,” Zon said, adding that the work is “one of the most exciting things” he has ever done.

Corey S. Cutler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who spearheaded the clinical trials, echoed Zon’s enthusiasm about the project’s potential. “The exciting part [about this project] is that it’s really home-grown technology that was discovered right down the hall,” he said. He added that while it may still be many years before the technology is ubiquitously accessible to patients, “the fact that we could potentially change the field entirely; it’s quite amazing.”

The study was published online in the weekly medical journal Blood in late August and received support from biopharmaceutical company Fate Therapeutics. Phase II of the clinical testing is designed to evaluate the treatment’s efficacy in about 60 patients. According to Zon, results should be expected after 18 months.

The HSCI was established nine years ago to translate stem cell technology advances made in the laboratory into clinical applications.