From Skin Cells to Oligodendrocytes, New Research Study Published

Beyond slowing down the disease through the use of disease-modifying therapies, researchers are looking to repair damage to the central nervous system caused by MS.  Myelin repair is a promising area of science which has the potential to improve quality of life for thousands of patients living with demyelinating disorders, such as multiple sclerosis.  But we still have a long way to go.

One area of myelin repair research focuses on the use of stem cells, specifically mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) which are taken from a variety of sources including bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, and adult fat or muscle tissue.  MSCs can become a variety of cell types, including bone cells, cartilage cells, and fat cells.  MSCs are more widely available than embryonic or neural stem cells, making research into stem cell transplantation more viable.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, scientists report discovering a way to convert ordinary skin cells into myelinating cells, or oligodendrocytes.1  Oligodendrocytes are the cells responsible for producing myelin, the fatty, protective sheath surrounding nerve cells that helps to speed transmission of nerve signals through the central nervous system.

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, explain a process by which they were able to convert fibroblasts, a common cell in skin and organs, into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs).  Researchers were able to manipulate or reprogram three naturally occurring proteins found in mouse embryonic and lung fibroblasts into billions of induced OPCs (or iOPCs).  When transplanted into mice, these iOPCs were successful in generating new myelin.

Authors of this study emphasize that current research into cell-based remyelinating therapies has centered around the use of pluripotent stem cells and fetal cells which presents certain limitations.  However, this newly described technique demonstrates the potential to safely and effectively generate functional oligodendrocytes from common skin cells without producing excess neurons or astrocytes.

“With further optimization, this approach could provide a source of functional OPCs that will complement, and possibly obviate, the use of pluripotent stem cells and fetal cells in cell-based remyelinating therapies,” researchers wrote in the study.2

While exciting research such as this seems to offer a “cure” for mice created specifically to be deficient in myelin, further research is necessary to demonstrate that the same cellular manipulation technique can be applied to human skin cells.  Imagine if scientists could take your own skin cells and turn them into remyelinating powerhouses.  Treatment for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, congenital leukodystrophies, or other demyelinating diseases might be forever changed.

You can read more about current research into remyelination and multiple sclerosis sponsored by the Myelin Repair Foundation (MRF) which offers a bibliography of more than 100 published articles on the subject3.  Robert H. Miller, PhD, Professor of Neurological Diseases at Case Western University and one of the authors of the present study, is a principal investigator associated with the Myelin Repair Foundation4.  Since its founding 2004 by Scott Johnson, a person living with MS, the Myelin Repair Foundation has raised $45 million to accelerate myelin repair research.

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