The lifespan of the formed elements is very brief. Although one type of leukocyte called memory cells can survive for years, most erythrocytes, leukocytes, and platelets normally live only a few hours to a few weeks. Thus, the body must form new blood cells and platelets quickly and continuously. When you donate a unit of blood during a blood drive (approximately 475 mL, or about 1 pint), your body typically replaces the donated plasma within 24 hours, but it takes about 4 to 6 weeks to replace the blood cells. This restricts the frequency with which donors can contribute their blood. The process by which this replacement occurs is called hemopoiesis, or hematopoiesis (from the Greek root haima- = “blood”; -poiesis = “production”).
Sites of Hemopoiesis
Prior to birth, hemopoiesis occurs in a number of tissues, beginning with the yolk sac of the developing embryo, and continuing in the fetal liver, spleen, lymphatic tissue, and eventually the red bone marrow. Following birth, most hemopoiesis occurs in the red marrow, a connective tissue within the spaces of spongy (cancellous) bone tissue. In children, hemopoiesis can occur in the medullary cavity of long bones; in adults, the process is largely restricted to the cranial and pelvic bones, the vertebrae, the sternum, and the proximal epiphyses of the femur and humerus.
Throughout adulthood, the liver and spleen maintain their ability to generate the formed elements. This process is referred to as extramedullary hemopoiesis (meaning hemopoiesis outside the medullary cavity of adult bones). When a disease such as bone cancer destroys the bone marrow, causing hemopoiesis to fail, extramedullary hemopoiesis may be initiated.
Differentiation of Formed Elements from Stem Cells
All formed elements arise from stem cells of the red bone marrow. Hemopoiesis begins when the hemopoietic stem cell is exposed to appropriate chemical stimuli collectively called hemopoietic growth factors, which prompt it to divide and differentiate. One daughter cell remains a hemopoietic stem cell, allowing hemopoiesis to continue. The other daughter cell becomes either of two types of more specialized stem cells (Figure 1):
- Lymphoid stem cells give rise to a class of leukocytes known as lymphocytes, which include the various T cells, B cells, and natural killer (NK) cells, all of which function in immunity. However, hemopoiesis of lymphocytes progresses somewhat differently from the process for the other formed elements. In brief, lymphoid stem cells quickly migrate from the bone marrow to lymphatic tissues, including the lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus, where their production and differentiation continues. B cells are so named since they mature in the bone marrow, while T cells mature in the thymus.
- Myeloid stem cellsgive rise to all the other formed elements, including the erythrocytes; megakaryocytes that produce platelets; and a myeloblast lineage that gives rise to monocytes and three forms of granular leukocytes: neutrophils, eosinophils, and basophils.
Hemopoietic Growth Factors
Development from stem cells to precursor cells to mature cells is again initiated by hemopoietic growth factors. These include the following:
- Erythropoietin (EPO) is a glycoprotein hormone secreted by the interstitial fibroblast cells of the kidneys in response to low oxygen levels. It prompts the production of erythrocytes. Some athletes use synthetic EPO as a performance-enhancing drug (called blood doping) to increase RBC counts and subsequently increase oxygen delivery to tissues throughout the body. EPO is a banned substance in most organized sports, but it is also used medically in the treatment of certain anemia, specifically those triggered by certain types of cancer, and other disorders in which increased erythrocyte counts and oxygen levels are desirable.
- Thrombopoietin, another glycoprotein hormone, is produced by the liver and kidneys. It triggers the development of megakaryocytes into platelets.
Bone Marrow Sampling and Transplants
Sometimes, a healthcare provider will order a bone marrow biopsy, a diagnostic test of a sample of red bone marrow, or a bone marrow transplant, a treatment in which a donor’s healthy bone marrow—and its stem cells—replaces the faulty bone marrow of a patient. These tests and procedures are often used to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of various severe forms of anemia, such as thalassemia major and sickle cell anemia, as well as some types of cancer, specifically leukemia.
In the past, when a bone marrow sample or transplant was necessary, the procedure would have required inserting a large-bore needle into the region near the iliac crest of the pelvic bones (os coxae). This location was preferred, since its location close to the body surface makes it more accessible, and it is relatively isolated from most vital organs. Unfortunately, the procedure is quite painful.
Now, direct sampling of bone marrow can often be avoided. In many cases, stem cells can be isolated in just a few hours from a sample of a patient’s blood. The isolated stem cells are then grown in culture using the appropriate hemopoietic growth factors, and analyzed or sometimes frozen for later use.
For an individual requiring a transplant, a matching donor is essential to prevent the immune system from destroying the donor cells—a phenomenon known as tissue rejection. To treat patients with bone marrow transplants, it is first necessary to destroy the patient’s own diseased marrow through radiation and/or chemotherapy. Donor bone marrow stem cells are then intravenously infused. From the bloodstream, they establish themselves in the recipient’s bone marrow.