MADISON - Using stem cells grown in the laboratory, scientists have successfully transplanted those cells into the nervous systems of ailing rats and arrested the course of a debilitating congenital disease.
Although accomplished in rats and still some years from clinical application, the work is important because it shows that cells grown from scratch can be used to repair defective nerves. The report was published this week (Friday, July 30) in the journal Science by a team of scientists from the University of Bonn Medical Center, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The work was accomplished using embryonic stem cells, ephemeral cells that arise within days of conception in a fertilized egg and very quickly develop into all the different kinds of cells -- blood, bone, muscle, neurons -- that make up the body. Such cells hold enormous therapeutic potential to treat disease through the promise of unlimited supplies of laboratory-grown replacement tissue to treat many congenital and acquired diseases, including heart disease, neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, and other diseases such as diabetes.
In the new study, stem cells were coaxed down a developmental pathway to become oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, key cells of the central nervous system. Transplanted into the spinal cords of fetal and newborn rats that lack myelin, a tissue that covers some nerve fibers, the cells were observed to promote the growth of the myelin sheaths essential to the ability of nerves to conduct electrical impulses and function normally.
"This is the first study showing that embryonic stem cells can be used for brain and spinal cord repair in an animal model of a human neurological disease," said Oliver Brüstle, a neuropathologist at the University of Bonn and first author of the paper.