Umbilical cord stem cells have been differentiated into neural cells for the first time ever showing promise for treating spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and other nervous system diseases. The results of the study conducted by a team of James Hickman at a University of Central Florida were published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience.
Up-to-date only embryonic stem cells were converted into other cell types in vitro, but they are largely controversial from the ethical point of view. The findings of the research team may shift focus from the studies involving embryonic stem cells to those basing on cord blood stem cells, thus bypassing the obstacles present with the use of embryonic stem cells.
These obstacles made the pharmaceutical company Geron, based in Menlo Park, California, to shut down its embryonic stem cell division. Having developed the treatment for spinal cord injury that involved embryonic stem cells, the company spent 18 months to get FDA approval for the human trials due to ethical and public concerns. On the opposite, umbilical cord stem cells do not raise ethical concerns as they come from the source that is usually discarded. At the same time, these stem cells do not cause immune reactions which would make their use in therapies simpler.
In their research, the team was able to convert umbilical cord stem cells into oligodendrocytes, cells producing myelin that insulates nerves in the spinal cord and the brain. To convert the stem cells in the desired cell type, the researchers combined chemical influence with the proper physical environment.
This discovery is a first step to developing stem cell treatments for diseases and conditions involving nerve damage. The group of researchers hopes the oligodendrocytes could be injected into the site of injury to treat the damaged spinal cord, as well as to be used for treating multiple sclerosis, diabetic nephropathy and similar conditions. In case of multiple sclerosis, injecting healthy oligodendrocytes that produce myelin could stop progressing of or even reverse the disease.