Multipotent self-renewing haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) regenerate the adult blood system after transplantation1, which is a curative therapy for numerous diseases including immunodeficiencies and leukaemias2. Although substantial effort has been applied to identifying HSC maintenance factors through the characterization of the in vivo bone-marrow HSC microenvironment or niche3-5, stable ex vivo HSC expansion has previously been unattainable6,7. Here we describe the development of a defined, albumin-free culture system that supports the long-term ex vivo expansion of functional mouse HSCs. We used a systematic optimization approach, and found that high levels of thrombopoietin synergize with low levels of stem-cell factor and fibronectin to sustain HSC self-renewal. Serum albumin has long been recognized as a major source of biological contaminants in HSC cultures8; we identify polyvinyl alcohol as a functionally superior replacement for serum albumin that is compatible with good manufacturing practice. These conditions afford between 236- and 899-fold expansions of functional HSCs over 1 month, although analysis of clonally derived cultures suggests that there is considerable heterogeneity in the self-renewal capacity of HSCs ex vivo. Using this system, HSC cultures that are derived from only 50 cells robustly engraft in recipient mice without the normal requirement for toxic pre-conditioning (for example, radiation), which may be relevant for HSC transplantation in humans. These findings therefore have important implications for both basic HSC research and clinical haematology.
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Animals, Cell Culture Techniques, Cell Proliferation, Cell Self Renewal, Clone Cells, Culture Media, Female, Fibronectins, Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Hematopoietic Stem Cells, Male, Mice, Polyvinyl Alcohol, Serum Albumin, Stem Cell Factor, Thrombopoietin, Time Factors, Transplantation Conditioning