Breakthrough in spinal cord research could lead to eventual motor neurone disease cure

 

Health Correspondent

Scientists have for the first time produced the "seed" cells of the human spinal cord in the lab – raising hopes that conditions such as muscular dystrophy could one day be treated by transplanting complex, lab-grown human tissue.

The spinal cord, a cylinder about the width of a little finger which runs down the backbone and is the core component of the central nervous system, is a hugely complex structure. Creating spinal cord tissue from stem cells has eluded researchers for years.

However, a major step has now been taken by Medical Research Council researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who set out to mimic the natural development of the spinal cord in the human embryo.

During normal embryo growth, the spinal cord, muscle and skeleton all form from a group of cells called neuro-mesodermal progenitors (NMPs). Experts realised that these "stepping stone" cells, which despite being known about for 100 years, had been overlooked by stem cell research, held the key to development of spinal cord stem cells.

By analysing and closely copying the complex series of chemical signals which take place in a growing embryo, they were able to make the ordinary stem cells of mice and of humans transform into NMPs, and then into spinal cord stem cells.


The team have not yet grown spinal cord tissue and the goal of using lab-grown spinal cord tissue to treat debilitating neuromuscular conditions such as muscular dystrophy and motor neurone disease is still many years away.

However, as well as paving the way for future advances, the breakthrough will enable scientists to study the development of these and similar diseases by taking stem cells from patients and watching whether they develop differently under the same process – potentially offering clues to the cellular cause of the disease.

“There have been some great advances in the field of stem cell research in recent years, with scientists being able to grow liver, heart and even some brain tissue in the lab. The spinal cord, however, has remained elusive because the NMP cells have largely been overlooked,” said Dr James Briscoe, who co-led the research at the MRC National Institute of Medical Research at Mill Hill.

“We can’t yet produce the tissues themselves, but this a really big step. It’s like being able to make the bricks and raw materials but not yet build the house,” he said.

“Understanding how nature normally does it gave us all of the clues we needed to artificially make these cell types from embryonic stem cells in petri dishes.”

Researchers have previously been able to grow some types of nerve, muscle and bone cells in the lab by converting them directly from stem cells. But this is the first time NMPs have been created from stem cells. Scientists hope that stem cells transformed through this natural development process will bear closer resemblance to those that occur naturally in the body – helping cells which might be used in transplants to better integrate with the body. 

“NMPs are important because they’re the source of the spinal cord and most of the bones and muscles in our body,” said Prof Val Wilson, co-leader of the research. “But they have been like Cinderella cells. Although recognised for more than a century in the embryo, they’ve tended to be ignored by scientists trying to make these cell types in a dish. We hope this work will bring them out of obscurity and highlight their importance.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine