May 2015

Hitting a nerve: researchers turn blood into neural cells

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Stem cell researchers from McMaster University have found a way to turn human blood cells into neural cells, opening the door to new approaches to understanding and treating pain.

The patented technique, described in a paper published in Cell Reports, involves extracting stem cells from blood and converting them into neural cells — like those found in the brain and the nervous system — over about a month.

“No one has ever done this with adult blood, to make this repertoire of neural cells, “Dr. Mick Bhatia, Director of McMaster University’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, told CTV News.

Dr. Bhatia and his team started working on the project after successfully converting skin cells into blood a few years ago. The researchers thought it would be useful to be able to make other kinds of cells from blood because it is easily accessible, regenerates on its own, and the resulting cells can be personalized.

“And so with this technology, blood could become a building block for neural cells,” Dr. Bhatia explained in CTV’s report.

The findings could lead to treatment advances for those suffering with chronic pain or nerve diseases. The researchers are  hopeful that one day it will be possible to take a blood sample from a patient and quickly produce a million nerve cells. They could then study those cells to better understand why certain people feel pain or why others experience numbness.

New pain medications that would specifically target neural cells, rather than just block the perception of pain, might also be developed thanks to the novel technique.”Pain is really poorly understood right now, and the drugs available are not well characterized,” Dr. Bhatia said in the CTV news report. “Most are narcotics and opioids that are addictive and they’re not very specific to the cells you’re trying to target.”

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