From Blood to Nerve Cells— A New Medical Breakthrough

Over the years, the human blood has been proven to have a huge importance in the everyday treatment of various illnesses, thus saving millions of lives across the globe. Its components— red blood cells, plasma, and platelets— have become helpful instruments in battling numerous diseases and injuries.

The red cells from a donated blood can help in the treatment of cancer, anemia, heart disease, kidney disease, fractures, and stomach disease. Red blood cells are also used in open heart surgeries, joint replacements, obstetrics (women who are pregnant or just gave birth, as well as young children), and even situations where trauma is involved, especially in road accidents.

Plasma and platelets, on the other hand, are used in several medical problems as well. Plasma is known for its ability to prevent bleeding, as well as treat burns, trauma, and blood diseases. Platelets are essential in helping patients with low platelet count, as well as blood clotting and repairing of damaged body tissues.

All of these contributions are already well-known to mankind, but did you know that there is a new medical breakthrough that can change the future of medicine and the way we look at blood? Read on and discover how the human blood can benefit us to a whole new level.


From one cell to another

Just recently, a group of Canadian scientists have discovered a new potential use of the human blood— in the form of nerve cells.

Mick Bhatia, director of McMaster University’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute in Hamilton, Ontario, led the team of scientists that figured out how to convert a body component into another one. Through their findings, they learned that a blood sample can actually be turned into nerve cells, which include those that are accountable for numbness, pain, and other body sensations.

“Nobody has ever done this with adult blood, ever,” says Bhatia. “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 specialized for each patient.”

Bhatia also explained that with this groundbreaking discovery, producing essential cells in the body is now possible. “We can actually take a patient’s blood sample, as routinely performed in a doctor’s office, and with it we 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,” he added.


The birth of blood-derived nerve cells

This revolutionary discovery was achieved by scientists using a new technique, which involves stem cells being extracted from fresh and frozen samples of adult blood and umbilical cord. These cells are usually the ones which can become red blood cells, or different kinds of white blood cells responsible for battling pathogens.

After the extraction, these stem cells are converted to neural stem cells for about a month, using a patented technique. Then, they are manipulated into various types of nerve cells— including those which can be found in the peripheral nervous center throughout the legs, arms, and the rest of the human body.

“We take a cell whose identity— its name, address, what it does as a blood cell— we tell it to forget all of that, and we educate it to become a neural cell,” explains Bhatia, comparing the process to converting a lawyer into a surgeon, which is a completely different profession.

“It’s literally a re-education process. We convert the cell completely to a different fate,” he added.

Bhatia’s team estimates that they can create approximately 100 million sensory neurons with just 50,000 adult blood cells, which can cost a donor less than a drop of his/her blood. Now, think about how many sensory neurons scientists can generate with one bag of donated blood.


New pain killer in town

Because of this sensational discovery, Bhatia and his team have made new medical advances that will benefit researchers and patients all over the world.

For example, they have paved the way for researchers to test and study potential medicines for pain and other conditions of the nervous system. With millions of generated nerve cells, it could be possible to create a treatment for pain that is similar to the patient’s genetic signature.

In line with this, their aim is to discover a new drug that is different from usual narcotics and opioids. They hope that the results of their study would bring out a whole new level of medicine that specifically targets the damaged neurons in the peripheral nervous system and not the brain and the whole central nervous system, as doing so causes the body to unwillingly experience unusual— sometimes addictive— side effects.

“You don’t want to feel sleepy or unaware, you just want your pain to go away,” says Bhatia. “But up until now, no one’s had the ability and required technology to actually test different drugs to find something that targets the peripheral nervous system and not the central nervous system in a patient-specific or personalized manner.”


For disease and beyond

Aside from hopefully producing a new potential drug that could be used to eliminate pain without giving the user a hard time in exchange of the relief he/she will be getting, Bhatia and his team also hopes to achieve more medical innovation with their latest discovery and patented technique.

First, they are expecting to further develop these blood-derived nerve cells into different kinds of neurons that could be transplanted into patients to reestablish healthy brain cells, which will be helpful in the treatment of various diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Bhatia and his team also have their eyes on the possibility that retinal nerve cells could be produced out of this technology, which will greatly benefit people who are losing their eyesight due to macular degeneration that comes with aging.

Indeed, the future looks bright in the field of blood and medicine.

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