A new study suggests a mechanism to get bone marrow stem cells to differentiate into brain cells. If the proposed method proves to be viable, it could lead to ways of generating new brain cell populations for repairing brain damage.

Rachel Okolicsanyi, of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia, and colleagues report their study in the journal Developmental Biology.

Unlike other cells of the body that can divide and replicate, once most types of brain cells die, the resulting neural damage is thought to be irreversible. Finding a way to generate new populations of brain cells would be a considerable breakthrough.

At the Genomics Research Centre of QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, Ms. Okolicsanyi is investigating whether or not bone marrow stem cells have the potential to differentiate or mature into brain cells.

In the study, she and her colleagues review the current literature and focus on a particular family of cell proteins that she believes can be manipulated to ensure the bone marrow stem cells differentiate into brain cells, as opposed to various other cells they are normally fated to become, as Ms. Okolicsanyi explains:

What we are hoping is that by manipulating this particular family of proteins we can encourage the stem cells to show a higher percentage of neural markers indicating that they could mature into neural cells rather than what they would normally do, which is form into bone, cartilage and fat.”

The family of proteins that Ms. Okolicsanyi’s research is looking at is the heparin sulfate proteoglycans, which sit on the surface of all cells.

The work of the study has helped her and her team decide what to do next. “We will manipulate these cells by modifying the surrounding environment,” she says. “For example, we will add chemicals such as complex salts and other commonly found biological chemicals to feed these cells, and this will either inhibit or encourage cellular processes.”

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The researchers are looking into ways of coaxing bone marrow stem cells to differentiate into brain cells, potentially helping stroke patients.

They will then observe how the stem cells react to these various chemicals and see which ones in particular increase or decrease the cells’ neural markers.

Ultimately, she hopes it will be possible to introduce stem cells into the brain and there manipulate them to repair damaged brain cells.

For example, in stroke patients who lose movement, speech or control of one side of their face – which results from damage to electrical circuits in the brain – introducing stem cells could generate new brain cells that reroute the circuits, bypassing the damaged cells.

Medical News Today recently learned about a team of scientists that reported using low-power lasers to coax stem cells to regenerate dentin in teeth. The Harvard-led team expects the discovery to lead to a wealth of new clinical applications for regenerating bones and teeth, healing wounds and more.