A team of scientists from Harvard Medical School have discovered a new population of easily accessible neural stem cells in fat tissue. The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, shows that these cells have therapeutic potential in gastrointestinal motility disorders.
Many disorders of the nervous system might be improved with stem-cell therapies. But the lack of available neural stem cells hinders progress in this area.
Schwann cells to neural stem cells
The researchers found that human and rodent subcutaneous fat tissue contained nerve fibre bundles containing Schwann cells. Schwann cells usually produce the myelin sheath that wraps around neuronal axons. When the Schwann cells were cultured in-vitro, they remodelled to form clusters of neural stem cells and displayed neurogenic differentiation potential.
Transcriptional profiling showed that the cells gained their neuronal stem cell properties due to a de-differentiation process. The emerging population of cells had gene expression profiles, cell markers and a differentiation potential that were very different to those of endogenous in-vivo Schwann cells.
Gastric motility in mouse models
Next, the authors studied the effect of the cells in mouse models of defective gastrointestinal motility. When the fat-tissue-derived stem cells were grafted into the gastrointestinal tracts of mice, the cells migrated throughout the smooth muscle. There, they showed neurochemical features and calcium signalling properties that were consistent with the cells being enteric neurons. Grafts of the stem cells improved digestive function in models of colonic aganglionosis and gastroparesis, two disorders that impair the ability of the intestine to move food.
Subcutaneous fat tissue can be harvested easily and offers unprecedented accessibility for sourcing neural stem cells directly from the patient. This reduces the risk of stem cell rejection in comparison to using donor stem cells.
Overall, the study describes efficient isolation procedures for mouse and human fat tissue-derived neural stem cells and suggests that these cells have potential therapeutic application.
“Because adipose stem cells are widely considered to be safe therapeutic agents for humans… the derivation of [fat tissue-derived neural stem cells] offers unprecedented potential for therapeutic application in neurological diseases,” say the authors.
Written by Charlotte Harrison, Science Writer
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