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Stem Cells Mature Into Brain Cells with Help from Antibody
Injuries to the nervous system, from trauma, stroke, or other causes, are nearly impossible to cure with current medical technology. Cells of the nervous system are quiescent, meaning that they do not replicate. If cells are damaged, they cannot be replaced. While therapy can help restore some function for the patient, the injury is considered permanent. One major hope for restoring cells in the nervous system after injury is stem cell therapy. Stem cells that have matured into nerve cells could be used to replace injured nerve cells and repair the injury.

Obtaining stem cells that have the ability to mature into nerve cells, and then producing the right conditions for maturation, are among the challenges scientists and clinicians face in order to begin testing stem cell therapy in patients. Indeed, producing the correct conditions in vitro to help stem cells properly mature into the correct type of cell is a major focus of research. Even when scientists are able to properly mature stem cells into nerve cells, concern arise regarding patient immune responses against donor cells. Using a the patient’s own stem cells to develop new nerve cells would remove the risk of immune rejection from transplantation.

In an accidental discovery, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute found an antibody that could induce bone marrow stem cells to develop into a nerve cell progenitor. The researchers were testing a panel of antibodies to find one capable of increasing growth in the bone marrow stem cells. The surprise discovery was very welcome by the scientists. Normally, antibodies in research are used to locate specific markers on cells, and act as labels. At times, antibody binding to a receptor on the surface of the cell has been known to activate the receptor, and cause changes in the cell. By screening a large library of antibodies against various receptors on the surface of bone marrow stem cells, the researchers unexpectedly found a method for producing nerve cells.

The researchers were screening a panel of antibodies that could recognize a specific growth-factor receptor on bone marrow stem cells. By activating this receptor, scientists can increase production of white blood cells to help mitigate the cytotoxic effects of chemotherapy in cancer patients. When researchers began testing the antibody mentioned above in culture, they noticed that the maturing stem cells became long, thin, and attached to the petri dish. They then tested these maturing cells for markers found on neural cells, and were surprised to learn that they had indeed induced maturation of neural progenitors.

The researchers are not sure why the antibody against the growth factor receptor caused the bone marrow stem cells to mature into neural progenitors. They suggest that the way the antibody binds to the receptor may have an effect on how the cell responds. Drug manufacturers have seen in recent years that how a receptor is bound by a product can have as much of an effect as what receptor is bound, and are beginning research to determine how these minor differences can be utilized and controlled.

While there have been some labs that have had success producing neural progenitor cells from bone marrow derived stem cells, the process is very difficult. First, the bone marrow derived stem cells must be reprogrammed to a more embryonic-like state that is believed to be more amenable to differentiation into various mature cell types. Then, the embryonic-like stem cells must be treated with the proper factors to induce maturation into the desired cell type. The results described above, utilizing antibody, appear to be the first demonstration of bone marrow derived stem cells being directly differentiated into neural progenitor cells. These results could dramatically simplify proposed stem cell therapies. The conventional protocol suggested for stem cell therapy involves removing bone marrow stem cells from a patient, maturing them in vitro into the proper type of cell, and then injecting the mature cells back into the patient. With the new discovery, it might be possible to inject an antibody in a patient. The antibody would help mature some of the bone marrow cells into neural progenitors, which could then migrate to sites of injury and help repair damage. This protocol would be much simpler and less expensive, and possibly be available to a larger number of patients.

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