Long-term culture-initiating cells (LTC-IC) are hematopoietic progenitors able to generate colony-forming unit-cells (CFU) after 5 to 8 weeks (35 to 60 days) of culture on bone marrow (BM) stroma and represent the most primitive progenitors currently detectable in vitro. We have recently reported that long-term cultures initiated with CD34+CD38- cells from BM or cord blood are able to continue generating CFU for at least 100 days, ie, beyond the standard LTC-IC period. In this report, single-cell cultures from cord blood and retroviral marking of cord blood and BM were used to study whether the subpopulation of CD34+CD38- cells able to generate CFU beyond 60 days (“extended long-term culture-initiating cells” or ELTC-IC) are functionally distinct from LTC-IC in terms of timing of initial clonal proliferation and generative capacity. All cord blood LTC-IC formed clones of greater than 50 cells by day 30. In contrast, cord blood ELTC-IC proliferated later in culture, 50% forming clones after day 30. Although efficient retroviral marking of LTC-IC was seen (25% to 45%), marking of ELTC-IC was inefficient (< 1%), consistent with a more quiescent progenitor population. There was a positive correlation between time of clonal proliferation and generative capacity. ELTC-IC generated threefold to fourfold more progeny than did LTC-IC (P < .002). These studies show that there is a functional hierarchy of progenitors in long-term culture which correlates with their level of quiescence. By extending the LTC-IC assay, a more primitive progenitor may be studied that may be functionally closer to the human long-term repopulation stem cell in vivo.

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