As humans age, hematopoietic stem cells—the immature precursor cells that give rise to all blood and immune cells—accumulate mutations. Some of the mutations allow these stem cells to self-renew and expand more effectively than their non-mutated counterparts. This relatively poorly understood condition, known as clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential (CHIP), is detectable in more than 10% of people older than 65 and is linked to increased risks of various inflammation-related diseases.

“These mutations change the character of the progeny cells, making them more inflammatory,” says George Hajishengallis of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine. “When a large fraction of your immune cells are derived from these mutant stem cells, it spells bad news for chronic inflammatory diseases.”

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