Stem cell scientists led by Mick Bhatia from the McMaster University have successfully converted adult human blood cells into neural cells.
The team directly converted adult human blood cells to both central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) neurons as well as neurons in the peripheral nervous system (rest of the body) that are responsible for pain, temperature and itch perception. This means that how a person's nervous system cells react and respond to stimuli can be determined from his blood.
"Now we can take blood samples and make the main cell types of neurological systems - the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system - in a dish that is specialized for each patient. Nobody has ever done this with adult blood. Ever," explained Bhatia, director of the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute.
Bhatia's team successfully tested their process using fresh blood as well as frozen blood.
Scientists can actually take a patient's blood sample and with it, can produce one million sensory neurons that make up the peripheral nerves in short order with this new approach.
"We can also make central nervous system cells, as the blood to neural conversion technology we developed creates neural stem cells during the process of conversion," Bhatia noted.
The revolutionary, patented direct conversion technology has "broad and immediate applications".
It allows researchers to start asking questions about understanding disease and improving treatments such as: Why is it that certain people feel pain versus numbness? Is this something genetic? Can the neuropathy that diabetic patients experience be mimicked in a dish?
It also paves the way for the discovery of new pain drugs that do not just numb the perception of pain.
In the future, the process may have prognostic potential, explained Bhatia, in that one might be able to look at a patient with Type 2 diabetes and predict whether they will experience neuropathy by running tests in the lab using their own neural cells derived from their blood sample.
"This bench to bedside research is very exciting and will have a major impact on the management of neurological diseases, particularly neuropathic pain," added Akbar Panju, medical director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Pain Research and Care.
This research will help scientists provide personalized medical therapy for patients suffering with neuropathic pain, the authors concluded.
The breakthrough was detailed in the journal Cell Reports.