Signals Blog

Mast cells are cells of the immune system that play a role in inflammatory responses, such as allergies and asthma. They share a number of surface markers (“identifier” molecules on a cell that help scientists distinguish between different types of cells) with hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). The similarity in these surface markers between mast cells and HSCs could result in mistaken identity when sorting stem cells.  This is especially relevant to HSC transplants, which are used to treat blood cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma, and blood diseases, like anemia. Since mast cells can participate in tissue repair, it is possible that some of the benefits attributed to HSC transplant may, in fact, be the effects of mast cells that are transplanted along with HSCs.

In a Journal of Infectious Diseases paper released last week, our team at the University of British Columbia compared the types of markers on both mast cells and HSCs and found a striking overlap. Many HSC markers were also expressed by mast cells, including prion protein (PrP).  PrP is what causes scrapie, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, all of which are fatal, incurable neurodegenerative diseases. We found that PrP is a marker on the surface of mast cells, and that it is shed in a soluble form that increases with mast cell activation. Given that mast cells can cross the blood-brain barrier, they could participate in transmitting infectious prions to the brain, contributing to the way prion diseases spread.

— Kelly McNagny, University of British Columbia

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