Stem cells self-renew and also produce progeny that differentiate into more mature cell types. The neurons and glia that compose nervous systems are examples of mature cells and these cells can be produced from embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, or neural stem cells. However, the reverse does not occur during development; more mature cells do not de-differentiate into less mature cells types. Development tends to be a one-direction event.
However, researchers have now discovered that inside teeth, nervous system cells can transform back into stem cells. This unexpected source of stem cells potentially offers stem cell scientists a new starting point from which to grow human tissues for therapeutic or research purposes without using embryos.
“More than just applications within dentistry, this finding can have very broad implications,” says developmental biologist Igor Adameyko of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who led this new work. “These stem cells could be used for regenerating cartilage and bone as well.”
The soft “tooth pulp” in the center of teeth has been known to contain a small population of tooth-specific mesenchymal stem cells, which can typically differentiate into tooth-specific structures, bones, and cartilage. However, no one has conclusively determined where these stem cells came from. Adameyko hypothesized that if he could trace their developmental lineage, he should be able to recapitulate their development in the laboratory. This might offer new ways of growing stem cells for tissue regeneration.
Adameyko and his and colleagues had already studied glial cells, which are nervous system cells that surround neurons and support them. Several of the nerves that wind through the mouth and gums help transmit pain signals from the teeth to the brain are associated with glial cells.
Adameyko and others used fluorescent labels to mark the glial cells in the gum. When the gum-specific glial cells were observed over time, some of these cells migrated away from neurons in the gums into teeth, where they differentiated into mesenchymal stem cells. These same cells then matured into tooth cells. This work was reported in the journal Nature.
Before this experiment, it was generally believed that nervous system cells were unable to de-differentiate or revert back to a flexible stem cell state. Therefore, Adameyko said that it was very surprising to see such a process in action. He continued: “Many people in the community were convinced … that one cell type couldn’t switch to the other. But what we found is that the glial cells still very much maintain the capacity” to become stem cells. If stem cell researchers and physicians could master those chemical cues in the teeth pulp that signals glial cells to transform into mesenchymal stem cells, they could generate a new way to grow and make stem cells in the lab.
“This is really exciting because it contradicts what the field had thought in terms of the origin of mesenchymal stem cells,” says developmental biologist Ophir Klein of the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the new work. But it’s also just the first step in understanding the interplay between the different cell populations in the body, he adds. “Before we really put the nail in the coffin in terms of where mesenchymal stem cells are from, it’s important to confirm these findings with other techniques.” If that confirmation comes, a new source of stem cells for researchers will be invaluable, he says.