Erythroblast bridging in normal human bone marrow smears stained with E-cadherin (red) and the nuclear DNA stain, DAPI.

Is mitochondrial transfer a player in bone marrow transplantation?

04 May 2017, Cancer, Professor Mike Berridge, Scope

Our Cancer Cell Biology researchers are undertaking a study that Group Leader, Professor Mike Berridge describes as “a world-first”. They are investigating whether DNA can transfer between cells damaged in bone marrow transplants.

“Using our cancer model, we showed that a damaged cell could collect fresh mitochondria from the host organism – there was a transfer of DNA,” said Dr Melanie McConnell, Malaghan Institute Research Associate and Senior Lecturer at Victoria University. The team soon realised that a similar situation occurred in bone marrow transplants. There, a patient is given therapies to suppress the growth of abnormally proliferating cells, before receiving replacement bone marrow from a donor. The result is that a transplant recipient could be left with two different types of mitochondrial DNA – their own, and that of the donor.

Using the differences between these mitochondrial DNA–there are about 40 base differences between any two humans – Prof Berridge and his research group aim to investigate whether genes travel between cells in order to replace those damaged in bone marrow transplants that include cancer. Eight donor-recipient pairs will be involved in this ground-breaking study: Samples of each participant’s bone marrow will be taken before, and again three months after transplantation. The aim of this is to examine whether any donor mitochondrial DNA markers are present in the recipient’s bone marrow.

In parallel, the team will investigate mitochondrial transfer in mice that have been treated with radiation – similar to that used in cancer treatment – which induces damage in the bone marrow. “We work with mouse models as it allows us to carefully design our experiments,” explains Prof Berridge, “…and to probe for genetic differences, we are using DNA sequencing and bioinformatics.”

Combined, these studies will provide a unique insight into the mechanism behind DNA transfer, and may have an impact on future treatment choices.