Building more nerves of the brain and spinal cord, faster and more efficiently

Motor neuron progenitors made from embryonic stem cells

The best scientists are, in many ways, like great chefs. It’s not the ingredients that they use that make a great meal, but how they blend them together. In the same way scientists often have the same basic elements but it’s the way they work with those that can make all the difference.

Stem cell researchers at the University of Illinois have found a way to generate human motor neurons – the kinds of nerves found in the brain and spinal cord – that is a lot faster and a lot more efficient than previous methods. And all it took was adding one ingredient to the mix a few days earlier than had previously been done.

Motor neurons are important because they carry the signals that help directly or indirectly control muscles and muscle movement. If those neurons are damaged – say in a car crash – then the signals are no longer received and the muscles no longer work.

In the past researchers were able to create neurons from stem cells by a carefully calculated process of adding in specific proteins at specific times. It worked but it took time, 40 to 50 days, and even then only around 20 to 30 percent of the cells actually became neurons. But this new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, cuts that time in half and increases the efficiency to around 70 percent.

The researchers were able to achieve this by adding in a critical element – two signaling molecules – 3 days sooner than they had in the past. The basic recipe for the cells was the same, they just added in two ingredients earlier.

In a news release picked up by Science Daily, lead researcher Prof. Fei Wang says this new method will have important benefits:

“To have a rapid, efficient way to generate motor neurons will undoubtedly be crucial to studying — and potentially also treating — spinal cord injuries and diseases like ALS.”

The more immediate benefits of this faster, more efficient method will be to enable researchers to develop motor neurons that can then be used to rapidly screen drugs to see which ones may be of use for treating patients.

At the stem cell agency we are funding research into a number of diseases where this advance in generating motor neurons might be useful, this includes work in spinal cord injuries and Lou Gehrig’s disease, more formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS

kevin mccormack

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