Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have found a mechanism to turn bone marrow stem cells into brain cells. It is one the press release states is not only “simple” but was “serendipitous” in its discovery.

The current method for transforming marrow cells, for use in treating things like spinal cord injuries or strokes, is described as not only cumbersome but also risky. But this latest find, which was uncovered by scientists researching antibodies that activate a growth-stimulating receptor on the marrow cells, pointed to one type of antibody that causes the marrow stem cells to become a nearly mature form of brain cell.

“These results highlight the potential of antibodies as versatile manipulators of cellular functions,” Richard Lerner, the Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Immunochemistry at the institute and principal investigator for the new study said in a statement. “This is a far cry from the way antibodies used to be thought of—as molecules that were selected simply for binding and not function.”

In the research of one isolated antibody that activated the marrow stem cells growth receptors, researcher Jia Xie in Lerner’s laboratory said the cells started “becoming long and thin and attaching to the bottom of the dish.” Lerner speculated, and later confirmed through tests, that they were becoming neural progenitor cells.

This process of changing a one cell into a completely different type is called transdifferentiation. Lerner said in a statement that he doesn’t know of any other laboratories that have been able to use a single protein to accomplish this, as their research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has. Current techniques for transdifferentiation involve deprogramming cells to a state that is like that of embryonic stem cells and reprogramming them, the press release explained.

Here’s how this new method of cell transdifferentiation could be used:

In principle, according to Lerner, an antibody such as the one they have discovered could be injected directly into the bloodstream of a sick patient. From the bloodstream it would find its way to the marrow, and, for example, convert some marrow stem cells into neural progenitor cells. “Those neural progenitors would infiltrate the brain, find areas of damage and help repair them,” he said.
U.S. World News and Report stated that the team will conduct animal tests using the technique and hope to collaborate with researchers working on regenerating eye nerves.