MAY 22, 2015 3:17 PM PDT

Blood Cells into Brain Cells

WRITTEN BY: Ilene Schneider
A group of scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, have a achieved what they describe as a real breakthrough - taking adult human blood cells and directly converting them into "central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) neurons as well as neurons in the peripheral nervous system (rest of the body) that are responsible for pain, temperature and itch perception." As described in Cell Reports and reported in Science Daily (McMaster University. "Blood to feeling: Scientists turn adult human blood cells into neurons." ScienceDaily, 21 May 2015), (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150521120919.htm), "This means that how a person's nervous system cells react and respond to stimuli, can be determined from his blood."
If blood cells can be converted into brain cells, scientists will have a better understanding of pain and how to treat it.
Researchers Mick Bhatia, director of the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute who holds the Canada Research Chair in Human Stem Cell Biology and is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, and Karun Singh, who holds the David Braley Chair in Human Stem Cell Research, believe that this patented, direct conversion technology will help researchers to understand why some people feel pain or numbness and how to treat them, which sensations are being caused by which elements of the neurological system and whether patients have a genetic predisposition for certain neurological conditions. While it is relatively easy to procure a blood sample, it is impossible to extract a piece of a person's neural system. If the cell types of the neurological system can be created in the laboratory from blood, the potential is that they can be used for both study and repair. New drugs that affect one part of the neurological system but not others can be produced if the mechanism producing the sensation is understood.

In research supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine, Marta and Owen Boris Foundation, J.P. Bickell Foundation and the Ontario Brain Institute and Brain Canada, the team tested the process using fresh blood, as well as cryopreserved (frozen) blood. Because blood samples are procured and frozen in the course of clinical trials, the researchers can have "almost a bit of a time machine to go back and explore questions around pain or neuropathy to run tests on neurons created from blood samples of patients taken in past clinical trials where responses and outcomes have already been recorded."
As Akbar Panju, medical director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Pain Research and Care, a clinician and professor of medicine, summaried, "This bench to bedside research is very exciting and will have a major impact on the management of neurological diseases, particularly neuropathic pain. This research will help us understand the response of cells to different drugs and different stimulation responses and allow us to provide individualized or personalized medical therapy for patients suffering with neuropathic pain."

Last year scientists reported in the August 11 issue of the Cell Press journal Developmental Cell that adult-born neurons may be obtained from a special type of circulating blood cell produced by the immune system of crayfish (Developmental Cell, Benton et al.: "Cells from the immune system generate adult-born neurons in crayfish") (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/cp-bca080514.php). The research, conducted by Dr. Barbara Beltz of Wellesley College and her colleagues, was designed to determine how new neurons are made in adult organisms. They learned that blood cells from the donor could generate neurons in the recipient and suggest that the immune system may contribute to the development of the unknown role of certain brain diseases in the development of brain and other tissues.
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
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