Stem Cells Used in Possible Human Myelin Regeneration

A team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin has recently reported their success in generating a type of cell out of human embryonic stem cells with the ability to produce myelin. This new finding may herald new ways and treatments for diseases and conditions associated with myelin degeneration such as multiple sclerosis. The said finding was reported in the journal Development.

Myelin can be found in the central nervous system and acts as an insulating sheath for nerve fibers, allowing more efficient signals or nerve impulses coming and going through them from the brain to the other parts of the body. Damage to this insulating sheath can considerably affect such signals that can have serious physical consequences. Such conditions happen to people with multiple sclerosis where myelin degeneration leads to a variety of functional impairments in the body.

Some studies have shown that rebuilding the damaged myelin sheath in the central nervous system may help people with multiple sclerosis from regaining some of the functions impaired by the condition. And with the University of Wisconsin scientists finding a means of doing this may eventually help open up new possibilities for treatment.

The cells the scientists made are called oligodendrocytes. These are the same cells responsible for producing myelin in the central nervous system. The scientists were able to do this by exposing human embryonic stem cells to a type of protein known as Sonic Hedgehog which produces oligodendrocytes in the spinal cord of developing embryos.

Dr. Su-Chun Zhang and his team of researchers treated human embryonic stem cells with the said protein and were able to produce the same oligodendrocytes after a period of 14 weeks. Producing the same cells on a mouse model using the same method was relatively easier where the cells were produced two weeks after mouse ES cells were treated with the Sonic Hedgehog protein.

The researchers also reported a difference between the two. A growth factor known as Fgf2 that promotes oligodendrocyte development in mouse ES cells can actually have the opposite effect on human ES cells and stall the production of oligodendrocytes.

The results, Dr. Zhang revealed, were quite unexpected. "This was quite a surprise given that this is exactly how we direct mouse ES cells to become oligodendrocytes. But we have discovered an unexpected twist in the cell’s response to the same external factor. It nevertheless explains why so many research groups have failed to persuade human neural stem cells to become oligodendrocytes for the past decade", Dr. Zhang further added.

Source: Development. "Human ES Cells Progress Slowly In Myelin’s Direction." ScienceDaily 10 April 2009. 14 April 2009

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