Researchers at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine have found a way to convert ordinary skin cells to the type of brains cells that are destroyed by disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis and Cerebral Palsy.
A myelinating cell is a special type of cell that forms a “myelin sheath” – a protective cover that wraps around a neuron – allowing the neuron to send brain impulses throughout the body. Myelinating cells are destroyed in patients suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, and genetic disorders called leukodystrophies.
The researchers’ technique, as detailed in the Nature Biotechnology journal, allows the almost immediate regeneration of these myelinating cells. It converts structural cells called fibroblasts – which are found in abundance in the skin and most organs – into oligodendrocytes, the type of cell that produces the myelin sheath for neurons in the brain.
“It’s ‘cellular alchemy,’” said Case Western Reserve School of Medicine’s assistant professor of genetics and genome sciences and senior author of the study, Dr. Paul Tesar. “We are taking a readily accessible and abundant cell and completely switching its identity to become a highly valuable cell for therapy.”
The researchers manipulated the levels of three naturally-occurring proteins in a process called “cellular reprogramming”, allowing them to cause fibroblast cells to be converted into the oligodendrocytes’ precursor cells. These are called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, or OPCs.
In just a short matter of time, Dr. Tesar’s team, led by fellow Case Western Reserve researchers Fadi Najm and Angela Lager, spawned billions of these induced OPCs, or iOPCs. More importantly, they discovered that iOPCs could regenerate fresh myelin sheathes around nerves after being transplanted to mice. This result offers hope that the technique could possibly be used to treat myelin disorders in humans.
The only way to cure myelin disorders is by regenerating the damaged myelin coating using replacement oligodendrocytes. Before this technique was discovered, these said replacements could only be acquired from fetal tissue or pluripotent stem cells. Though these procedures proved useful, they had their disadvantages. “The myelin repair field has been hampered by an inability to rapidly generate safe and effective sources of functional oligodendrocytes,” said myelin expert and co-author, Dr. Robert Miller. “The new technique may overcome all of these issues by providing a rapid and streamlined way to directly generate functional myelin producing cells.”
Mouse cells were used in this study. The next step is to test the procedure on human cells in a lab setting, and demonstrate that it is safe as well as efficient. Success could pave the way for widespread application to human myelin disorders. “The progression of stem cell biology is providing opportunities for clinical translation that a decade ago would not have been possible,” said Dr. Stanton Gerson, director of the National Center for Regenerative Medicine and professor of Medicine-Hematology/Oncology at the School of Medicine. “It is a real breakthrough.”
Source: Case Western Reserve School of Medicine
Dean has been fighting Multiple Sclerosis for 26 years. She continually studies and researches the disease to educate herself. She writes this column as a community service to share her findings and to raise public awareness about MS.