U.S. scientists grow nerve cells from umbilical stem cells: What could be more tragic than a woman in her prime, trapped in a chronic, unpredictable and progressive disease of the central nervous system that causes her to suffer from constant pain, spasms and tremors, incontinence, constipation, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression—and eventually, paralysis and blindness?
Or a young man suddenly and fully paralyzed by a spinal cord injury from a violent attack or accident?
Severe crippling and lifelong incapacitation — that’s what it means to suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS) or a spinal cord injury (SCI).
In MS, the immune system attacks and destroys the insulation of nerves and, over time, the nerves themselves. As more and more nerves get affected, people with MS lose more of the functions controlled by the nervous system—speech, memory, vision, movement.
MS sufferers have roughly the same life expectancy as healthy people, but for about 400,000 people in the United States and more than two million worldwide who suffer from the dreaded disease, life becomes unbearable and they end up taking their own lives.
Meanwhile, around 230,000 people in the U.S. and about two million worldwide live with a spinal cord injury caused by a single violent attack or a car accident. In the U.S., about 11,000 new injuries occur each year.
For people with spinal cord injuries, life is a struggle to endure paralysis—of both legs, or full paralysis of limbs and torso.
Currently, there are no cures for both conditions — only therapies to slow the course of MS or ease the hardships experienced by people with SCIs.
First step toward cure
But new findings from the University of Central Florida (UCF), published in the Jan. 18 issue of the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, comprise a vital step toward finding a cure for the two dreaded nervous system ailments.
The team of researchers under UCF bioengineer Dr. James Hickman were able to successfully grow oligodendrocytes—or the critical structural cells that insulate nerves in the brain and spinal cord–from human multipotent progenitor cells (MLPCs) derived from umbilical cord blood.
This achievement is a breakthrough in at least three fronts.
First is the medical potential of growing oligodendrocytes. Injected into the body at the point of a spinal cord injury, oligodendrocytes may be able to promote repair.
The team’s achievement may also lead to the development of treatments for multiple sclerosis and similar conditions, since oligodendrocytes produce the myelin that insulate nerve cells—the very thing being attacked by the immune system of those who suffer MS.