Dead bodies can provide organs for transplants, now they might become a source of stem cells too. Huge numbers of stem cells can still be mined from bone marrow five days after death to be potentially used in a variety of life-saving treatments.
Human bone marrow contains mesenchymal stem cells, which can develop into bone, cartilage, fat and other cell types. MSCs can be transplanted and the type of cell they form depends on where they are injected. Cells injected into the heart, for example, can form healthy new tissue, a useful therapy for people with chronic heart conditions.
Unlike other tissue transplants, MSCs taken from one person tend not to be rejected by another's immune system. In fact, MSCs appear to pacify immune cells. It is this feature which has made MSC treatments invaluable for children with graft-versus-host disease, in which transplants aimed at treating diseases such as leukaemia attack the child instead.
Stem cell therapies require a huge numbers of cells though, and it can be difficult to obtain a sufficient amount from a living donor. Could cadavers be the answer? After death, most cells in the body die within a couple of days. But since MSCs live in an environment that is very low in oxygen, Gianluca D'Ippolito and his colleagues at the University of Miami, Florida, wondered whether they might survive longer than the others.