Observations made in the last few years support the existence of pathways, in adult humans and rodents, that allow adult stem cells to be surprisingly flexible in their differentiation repertoires. Termed plasticity, this property allows adult stem cells, assumed, until now, to be committed to generating a fixed range of progeny, to switch, when they have been relocated, to make other specialized sets of cells appropriate to their new niche. Reprogramming of some adult stem cells can occur in vivo; the stem cells normally resident in bone marrow appear particularly flexible and are able to contribute usefully to multiple recipient organs. This process produces cells with specialized structural and metabolic adaptations commensurate with their new locations. In a few examples, the degree of support is sufficient to assist or even rescue recipient mice from genetic defects. Some studies provide evidence for the expansion of the reprogrammed cells locally, but in most it remains possible that cells arrive and redifferentiate, but are no longer stem cells. Nevertheless, the fact that appropriately differentiated cells are delivered deep within organs simply by injection of bone marrow cells should make us think differently about the way that organs regenerate and repair. Migratory pathways for stem cells in adult organisms may exist that could be exploited to effect repairs using an individual's own stem cells, perhaps after gene therapy. Logical extensions of this concept are that a transplanted organ would become affected by the genetic susceptibilities of the recipient, alleles that re-express themselves via marrow-derived stem cells, and that plasticity after bone marrow transplantation would also transfer different phenotypes, affecting important parameters such as susceptibility to long-term complications of diabetes, or the ability to metabolize drugs in the liver. This article reviews some of the evidence for stem cell plasticity in rodents and man.
Copyright 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.