Researchers have found a way to directly convert blood stem cells into nerve cells of both the central and peripheral nervous system.
According to the research team, the finding has 'broad and immediate applications', which could include testing targeted pain drugs or exploring the mechanisms behind conditions such as diabetic neuropathy.
'The problem is that unlike blood, a skin sample or even a tissue biopsy, you can't take a piece of a patient's neural system,' said lead author Dr Mick Bhatia from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.
He adds: 'Now we can take easy-to-obtain 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 specialised for each patient.'
The research team, who published their results in Cell Reports, applied a patented technique called OCT4-based programming to neonatal cord blood and adult blood stem cells. The technique induces plasticity in cells.
Alongside it, the researchers had to use particular chemical conditions to goad the cells into becoming neural stem cells, or induced neural progenitor cells (iNPCs).
Under these conditions, they found that within only 8-10 days the cells had formed little clusters which began to express Nestin - a marker of neural stem cells. Whether derived from cord cells or adult blood, the cells' biomarker profiles were consistently similar to that of adult NPCs and did not express biomarkers for pluripotency. The cells were also robust, surviving in vitro for several months.
The team then demonstrated that the cells could be manipulated to give rise to multiple neural cell types including glial cells, dopaminergic cells of the central nervous system and nociceptive (pain) neurons of the peripheral nervous system.
Dr Bhatia and his team previously reported the successful conversion of skin cells into blood cells but, to date, scientists had not been able to obtain NPCs in vitro.
The researchers say that the technique could be used to develop drugs that specifically target the peripheral nervous system while sparing the central nervous system, which could reduce the side effects of pain medication.
Other applications could be in better understanding neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, or to produce retinal neural cells for patients with age-related macular degeneration.
'With this technology, blood could become a building block for neural cells,' Dr Bhatia told CTV News.
'We know this is something that people want - scientists, people in industry want to be able to large amount of patient-specific cells. There just hasn't been the technology.'