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.
“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.”