Regenerating damaged nerve tissue represents a unique challenge for regenerative medicine. Nevertheless, some experiments have shown that it is possible to regenerate the myelin sheath that surrounds particular nerves.
Myelin is a fatty, insulating sheath that surrounds particular nerves and accelerates the transmission of nerve impulses. The myelin sheath also helps neurons survive, and the myelin sheath is attacked and removed in multiple sclerosis, a genetic disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and spinal cord injuries. Being able to regenerate the myelin sheath is an essential goal of regenerative medicine.
Fortunately, a new study from a team of UC Davis (my alma mater) scientists have brought this goal one step closer. Wenbig Deng, principal investigator of this study and associate professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine, said, “Our findings represent an important conceptual advance in stem cell research. We have bioengineered the first generation of myelin-producing cells with superior regenerative capacity.”
The brain contains two main cell types; neurons and glial cells. Neurons make and transmit nerve impulses whereas glial cells support, nourish and protect neurons. One particular subtype of glial cells, oligodendrocytes, make the myelin sheath that surrounds the axons of many neurons. Deng and his group developed a novel protocol to induce embryonic stem cells (ESCs) to differentiate into oligodendrocyte precursor cells or OPCs. Even though other researchers have made oligodenrocytes from ESCs, Deng’s method results in purer populations of OPCs than any other available method.
Making OPCs from ESCs is one thing, but can these laboratory OPCs do everything native can do? When Deng and his team tested the electrophysiological properties of their laboratory-made OPCs, they discovered that their cells lacked an important component; they did not express sodium channels. When the lab-made OPCs were genetically engineered to express sodium channels, they generated the characteristic electrical spikes that are common to native OPCs. According to Deng, this is the first time anyone has made OPCs in the laboratory with spiking properties. Is this significant?
Deng and his colleagues compared the spiking OPCs to non-spiking OPCs in the laboratory. Not only did the spiking OPCs communicate with neurons, but they also did a better job of maturing into oligodentrocytes.
Transplantation of these two OPC populations into the spinal cord and brains of mice that are genetically unable to produce myelin also showed differences. Both types of OPCs were able to mature into oligodendrocytes and produce myelin sheaths, but only the spiking OPCs had the ability to produce longer and thicker myelin sheaths.
Said Deng, “We actually developed ‘super cells’ with an even greater capacity to spike than natural cells. This appears to give them an edge for maturing into oligodendrocytes and producing better myelin.
Human neural tissue has a poor capacity to regenerate and even though OPCs are present, they do not regenerate tissue effectively when disease or injury damages the myelin sheath. Deng believes that replacing glial cells with the enhanced spiking OPCs to treat injuries and diseases has the potential to be a better strategy than replacing neurons, since neurons are so problematic to work with in the laboratory. Instead providing the proper structure and environment for neurons to live might be the best approach to regenerate healthy neural tissue. Deng also said that many diverse conditions that have not been traditionally considered to be myelin-based diseases (schizophrenia, epilepsy, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) are actually now recognized to involve defective myelin.
On that one, I think Deng is dreaming. ALS is caused by the death of motor neurons due to mechanisms that are intrinsic to the neurons themselves. Giving them all the myelin in the world in not going to help them. Also, OPCs made from ESCs will be rejected out of hand by the immune system if they are used to regenerate myelin in the peripheral nervous system. The only hope is to keep them in the central nervous system, but even there, any immune response in the brain will be fatal to the OPCs. This needs to be tested with iPSCs before it can be considered for clinical purposes.