Canadian researchers are breaking new ground with a recent discovery. They’ve uncovered a way to transform simple blood cell samples into nerve cells – including nerve cells responsible for interpreting pain, numbness, and other sensations.
The study, published in the journal Cell(1), is one of the first of its kind, and represents a huge new field of potential for further research, particularly in the areas of painkilling drugs.
Breaking New Ground
The study is significant not only in its innovative use of stem cell technology, but in the possibilities it represents for further studies.
“Now we can take easy to obtain blood samples and make the main cell types of neurological systems – the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system – in a dish that is specialized for each patient,” said study leader Mick Bahtia to CBC News(2).
Bahtia stressed the newness of this approach, saying, “Nobody has ever done this with adult blood, ever.”
This new technique offers a way around the barrier of not being able to access human neural cells for tests and studies. While researchers have previously been able to run tests and perform studies using certain kinds of rat neural cell lines, those do not consistently respond in the same ways that human neural cell lines do.
Being able to transform human blood cells into human nerve cells could take a lot of the guesswork out of these studies.
Stem Cell Research
The newly discovered technique involves harvesting blood from donors and then extracting stem cells from that blood. The blood stem cells are then converted into neural stem cells using the newly patented technique.
The process takes about a month, and the newly produced neural cells can survive for up to several months in a petri dish, making them ideal for long-term research projects.
These neural stem cells can then be manipulated into several different types of nerve cells, including peripheral nervous system and central nervous system cells.
A New Hope For Drug Research
Researchers are particularly optimistic about the implications of this new technique for painkiller drug research.
According to Bhatia, the hope is to use this technique to develop pain drugs that do more than simply numb the perception of pain.
“If I was a patient and I was feeling pain or experiencing neuropathy, the prized pain drug for me would target the peripheral nervous system neurons, but do nothing to the central nervous system, thus avoiding non-addictive drug side effects,” Bhatia said in a recent press release(3).
“You don’t want to feel sleepy or unaware, you just want your pain to go away. 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.”
Further Potential Yet To Be Explored
In the press release, Bhatia talks about the further potential of this new research – although this is a ways off.
Bhatia explained that this breakthrough may eventually represent significant prognostic potential for patients with type 2 diabetes, for example – helping doctors to predict whether a patient will experience neuropathy by running specialized tests using that patients individual neural cells, derived from their blood sample.
The research was made possible by the support of several non-profit research foundations, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Ontario Brain Institute.