A unique type of cell, which can support regeneration in the central nervous system has been discovered by scientists at the University of Cambridge.
Their findings have raised the possibility of obtaining a more reliable source of these cells for use in cell transplantation therapy for spinal cord injuries.
Olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), ensheath and protect the nerve fibres in the olfactory nerve, which transmit olfactory (smell) information to the brain from receptor cells sitting in the lining of the nose.
OECs can promote nerve repair when transplanted into the damaged spinal cord.
Clare Baker of the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, said: "In theory, one should be able to purify OECs from a patient's nose and transplant them into the damaged spinal cord to promote nerve repair, without any fear of graft rejection.
"Unfortunately, there aren't very many OECs in the nasal lining, and this tissue also contains other peripheral nerve fibres, ensheathed by cells that look very similar to OECs but which are less effective at promoting spinal cord repair. As a result, it has thus far proven difficult to purify sufficiently large numbers of OECs from the nasal lining for effective use in cell transplantation therapy."
The new research, however, revealed a different origin for OECs that may enable scientists in the future to produce them in large quantities from adult stem cells. he researchers have discovered that, like all other cells ensheathing peripheral nerve fibres, OECs are actually derived from a group of embryonic stem cells called 'neural crest cells'.
Neural crest stem cells persist in adult skin and hair follicles, and other researchers have already shown that it is possible to isolate these stem cells and grow them in the lab.
Baker said, "The next step is to work out how to turn these stem cells into OECs. To do this, we need to investigate how this process happens normally in the developing embryo."
The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).