From bone marrow to brain: stem cell conversion opens doors for new therapies

Brain precursor cells directly reprogrammed from blood-forming stem cells.
(Image courtesy of the Lerner lab, The Scripps Research Institute.)

We’ve been writing a lot recently about the whiz-bang new field of directly reprogramming the body’s cells (see here and here). Cells long-thought to be restricted to forming just a few cells types are now being prodded in the lab into forming far-flung tissues. Skin becomes nerves. Fibroblasts become beating heart cells.

The latest transformation comes from a lab at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. Researchers in Richard Lerner’s lab were hard at work trying to find ways of prodding blood-forming stem cells from the bone marrow to multiply and produce more immune cells–basically bumping up the volume of what those cells do anyway.

Instead, what they found was a way of prodding those blood-forming stem cells to become long and thin and attach to the bottom of the lab dish. That’s not how immune cells behave. It’s how nerve cells behave.

Not only is this the first time scientists have converted blood-forming stem cells into neural cells, it’s the first time anyone has carried out a transformation from one cell type to another using only one protein. A press release from Scripps describes the results:

Current cell-therapy methods typically assume that a patient’s cells will be harvested, then reprogrammed and multiplied in a lab dish before being re-introduced into the patient. In principle, according to Lerner, an antibody such as the one they have discovered could be injected directly into the bloodstream of a sick patient. From the bloodstream it would find its way to the marrow, and, for example, convert some marrow stem cells into neural progenitor cells. “Those neural progenitors would infiltrate the brain, find areas of damage and help repair them,” he said.

Although the field is very new, CIRM funds several awards to researchers hoping to harness direct reprogramming to develop new therapies. You can see those direct transformation awards on our website.


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