Using Direct Conversion Technology to Transform Blood Cells into Nerve Cells as a Major Prognostic Tool for Neurological Diseases
Blood, skin, and tissue biopsy samples are easily attained for study but not so much from the human nervous system, which is a complex and delicate arrangement of neural wiring. With a new patented direct conversion technology developed by stem cell scientists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, blood cells (derived from a simple routine blood draw) can be transformed into neurons. This new advancement has strong implications in determining the likelihood of a patient with a certain disease to develop neurodegenerative disorders, such as diabetic neuropathy, and possibly create better drugs and treatments to combat such debilitating conditions.
The human nervous system has two main branches: the central nervous system (CNS), comprised of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS)—the rest of the body—which feeds information to the CNS about pain, itchiness, and temperature from nerve receptors from different parts of the body.
Direct conversion technology uses a patient’s blood sample to generate one million sensory nerve cells that serve as a snapshot of that patient’s PNS, and can be used to uniquely predict how the patient’s nerve cells will react and respond to stimuli. The new method can also generate CNS cells as the conversion technology can create neural stem cells as a precursor to the sensory nerves that make up the PNS.
In the future, diabetics can know in advance if they will develop neuropathy characterized by shooting or burning pain in hands and feet, numbness, weakness, or tingling due to PNS damage from an underlying medical condition, e.g. diabetes. A focused treatment tailored to combat pain is key in effectively remedying the condition. Current pain medications, such as opioids, only systemically mask the perception of pain by way of the CNS. With their new direct conversion technology in hand, McMaster scientists plan to target PNS pain without affecting the CNS that can often cause unwanted side effects, such as addictive behavior associated with narcotics use.