The ability for stem cells to heal damaged tissue in the body is no secret.
Companies like Pluristem Therapeutics Inc. (Nasdaq: PSTI) have shown that all it takes is a simple injection of stem cells directly to a patient’s injury site. The cells then begin repairing damage immediately.
The problem is, scientists still aren’t certain exactly how these cells are performing once they’re introduced into the body. Or as one researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jason P. Weick, says, “The big question was, ‘can these cells integrate in a functional way?’”
But as he showed in a report published last week, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the answer is: You bet!
Molding Stem Cells with Light
To make sure transplanted cells integrate successfully, Weick and his team turned to the science of optogenetics. That is, using light to trigger cellular activity.
With this method, they were able to monitor and control the activity of newly transplanted cells. So instead of injecting stem cells into a damaged part of the body and just hoping for the best, doctors can easily see how the cells are interacting with existing tissue. And they can adjust accordingly.
As Weick says, “Previously, we’ve been limited in how efficiently we could stimulate transplanted cells. Now we have a tool that allows us to specifically stimulate only the transplanted human cells – and lots of them at once – in a non-invasive way.”
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The best part? Weick’s team has proven that the process is able to rebuild the most complex part of the body – the brain.
Say Goodbye to Parkinson’s
After growing human neurons from stem cells in a lab, the Wisconsin scientists injected them into a damaged area of a mouse’s brain.
Then using optogenetics to precisely trigger the stem cells, the scientists saw that the new neurons were able to receive input from the mouse’s existing brain cells. Better yet, the new cells could send information back, too.
This breakthrough marks “the first time that these transplanted cells can both listen and talk to surrounding neurons of the adult brain,” according to Weick.
And with optogenetics’ ability to ensure that lab-grown neurons can successfully replace damaged brain cells, the potential for this technology goes without saying.
The discovery could lead to a world where anyone with a brain disorder, such as Parkinson’s, could lead a normal life. Likewise, recovery from the debilitating side effects of a stroke could be as easy as receiving a simple injection.
Looking further ahead, a syringe full of stem cells and a few flashes of light could be enough to build an entire brain from scratch.
And remember, if that doesn’t work, you could always opt for Tel Aviv University’s synthetic chip, instead.