Specially Grown Cells Replace Defective Nerve Tissue

NEW YORK, Jul 29 (Reuters Health) — Cells derived from embryos have been coaxed to develop into specialized nerve cells that function normally when transplanted into the brain or spinal cord of laboratory animals, offering the possibility of applying similar techniques to human neurological diseases.

By growing embryonic stem cells in solutions containing special growth factors, scientists “coaxed” them to develop into glial cells — nerve cells that produce myelin, a coating required by other nerve cells for normal communication — according to Dr. Oliver Brustle from the University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany, and co-workers from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Glial cells — called oligodendrocytes and astrocytes — normally help to maintain the health of brain and other nerve cells. They also produce the myelin coating that is critical for the normal transmission of signals between nerves and brain cells. Among the human diseases caused by a lack of myelin are multiple sclerosis and a rare genetic disorder called Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease.

When these specialized glial cells were transplanted into the spinal cords of newborn rats bred to lack myelin (as a model of Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease), the cells not only grew and spread for several millimeters from the transplant site, but they also produced myelin that surrounded the rat nerve cells, according to a report in the July 30th issue of Science.

Similarly, when the cells were transplanted into the brains of rat embryos, the cells migrated into multiple brain regions, where they produced normal myelin.

The research team believes that their approach may ultimately be applied to human neurological disorders. “The availability of human embryonic stem cells… provide(s) exciting perspectives for the treatment of human diseases…. Self-renewing (able to differentiate into any cell type)… embryonic stem cells may provide a virtually unlimited donor source for transplantation,” the authors conclude.

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