Above: Image © istockphoto.com/tupungato
In June 2015, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario published a research paper describing how they were able to convert adult blood cells into neural (brain) cells using the power of stem cells. Before getting into the details and the importance of this groundbreaking work, let me cover some of the basics.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are completely undifferentiated cells. This means that they can grow and change—or differentiate—into any type of cell in the body: blood cells, brain cells, skin cells, lung cells, you name it! Well, it’s actually a little harder than that…
Stem cells naturally differentiate themselves into all different kinds of cells. However, scientists only recently figured out how to do this in the lab. It turns out that the environment in which the stem cells grow—the nutrients available, the pH, the temperature, etc.—determines what kind of cell they will become.
What have the McMaster scientists accomplished?
For the first time, scientists have converted adult stem cells from a blood sample into neural cells that work in both the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (rest of the body). The method they used also converted the cells relatively quickly and produced a lot of cells. The same research group had previously converted skin cells into blood cells using a similar technique.
This research is groundbreaking because of how hard neural cells are to access. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to take a sample of neural cells. If scientists cannot access a person’s neural cells, they cannot study them. Blood, on the other hand, is extremely easy to sample and the sampling itself doesn’t cause any harm. So researchers now have a much easier way to access and study personalized neural cells.
Why is this important?
The ability to create neural cells from blood cells will help scientists study pain and how pain registers differently in different people. For example, some people with type 2 diabetes experience pain more as numbness while others don’t, but no one really knows why.
Medical researchers are also hoping to develop more targeted pain medication. In particular, they are trying to make drugs that will only affect the peripheral nervous system and not the central nervous system. Such a drug could relieve pain (affecting your peripheral nervous system) without causing drowsiness or affecting the brain in any other way (not affecting your central nervous system).
Scientists may even be able to use lab-grown brain cells to treat neural degenerative diseases like ALS, Parkinson’s, and some forms of blindness. The possibilities are virtually endless!