Thursday, September 5, 2013

Engineered stem cells become myelin super-producers

Just as good insulation is critical for getting electricity through the cord that powers your computer (or tablet battery) so you can read this blog post, it’s also critical for neurons transmitting electrical signals down their long axons. That insulation is a fatty substance called myelin that forms a tube or sheath around the length of the axon. It's this myelin that's lost in people who have multiple sclerosis (MS).

Our grantees at UC Davis have found a method for growing stem cell-derived brain cells that can produce large amounts of myelin and that might be used to treat MS.

In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin sheaths around neurons, making them less effective at conducting neural signals. Over time, this can lead to numbness in a person’s limbs or, more severely, paralysis and blindness. Recently, other neurological conditions as disparate as schizophrenia, epilepsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease) have been linked to defective myelin.

The research team, led by Winben Deng, started by transforming embryonic stem cells into precursors to the helper brain cells that produce myelin, called oligodendrocytes. They then spliced in DNA to fix a problem with how the cells moved salt across their membranes. Surprisingly, this DNA edit also helped the cells generate more myelin. Although other stem cell researchers have created oligodendrocytes that can produce myelin, the UC Davis team's cells are super-producers.

Although the human brain has oligodendroglial progenitor cells (OPCs) that can grow into oligodentrocytes, there aren’t nearly enough to compensate for the myelin depletion caused by diseases like MS. Transplanting “enhanced OPCs” like the ones Deng’s team created is one potential future treatment for MS. The study was published last week in the journal Stem Cells.

Several CIRM grantees are working on developing MS treatments, including a few who are finding ways to repair myelin sheaths. You can read more about those efforts on our Multiple Sclerosis Fact Sheet.

Rina Shaikh-Lekso

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