Canadian scientists have discovered how to turn blood cells into nerve cells

Written on:May 27, 2015
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Canadian scientists said that they have figured out a way to turn regular human blood cells into nerve cells, an achievement that could lead to new advances for those suffering chronic pain or nerve diseases.

The technology will allow researchers to test potential drugs for treating pain using the nerve cells in a lab, all based on an individual patient’s own genetic signature, said Mick Bhatia, who led the team of researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Mick Bhatia, director of McMaster University's Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute

Mick Bhatia, director of McMaster University’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute

“The idea of using stem cells to convert one kind of a cell into another isn’t new, as other research teams have already been able to turn skin cells into blood cells, for example. But no one has ever been able to create central nervous system neural cells and peripheral nervous system neural cells, which are very, very complex,” Bhatia said to CTV.

“No one has ever done this with adult blood to make this repertoire of neural cells,” Bhatia said.

Up until now, there has been no good way to get access to human neural cells to test or study, Bhatia told CBC News. “You wouldn’t give a brain biopsy,” he said. While researchers can buy certain kinds of rat neural cell lines, they don’t consistently respond the way human neural cells do.

The new technique involves extracting stem cells from blood — ones that normally have the potential to become red blood cells or various kinds of white blood cells involved in fighting off pathogens. The blood stem cells are converted over about a month into neural stem cells using a patented technique. Those can survive for several months in a petri dish.

These neural stem cells are then manipulated in the lab to give rise to several types of nerve cells, including those that make up the peripheral nervous system throughout the arms, legs and the rest of the body.

“We can actually take a patient’s blood sample, as routinely performed in a doctor’s office, and with it we can produce one million sensory neurons,” said Bhatia. “We can also make central nervous system cells.”

The researchers hope to discover new pain drugs that take aim only at the peripheral nerve system, while not affecting the brain and the rest of the central nervous system, as standard opioids and narcotics do.

“You don’t want to feel sleepy or unaware, you just want your pain to go away,” said Bhatia.

“But up until now, no one’s had the ability and required technology to actually test different drugs to find something that targets the peripheral nervous system and not the central nervous system in a patient-specific or personalized manner.”

Examining neural cells derived from a patient’s own blood means they contain the same DNA, making it possible to determine whether there may be a genetic reason why someone might perceive excessive pain, then seeking a drug that’s tailored to fit their personal DNA profile.His lab hopes to further develop the blood-generated neural stem cells into motor and other kinds of neurons that could conceivably one day be transplanted into patients to restore healthy brain cells as a treatment for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease, for instance.

The technology could also be used to produce retinal nerve cells to treat people who are losing their sight due to age-related macular degeneration. The research was published in the journal Cell Reports on May 21.

In the interview on May 22, Bhatia said the breakthrough points to plenty of avenues involving pain relief to be explored.

 

 

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