scientists hope that their newly acquired ability to generate this intermediate
cell type will lead to improved research and maybe even treatments in neurodegenerative conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy.
'We can’t yet
produce the tissues themselves', said Dr James Briscoe from the Medical Research Council (MRC) National
Institute for Medical Research, UK, who co-led the study, 'but this a really
big step. It’s like being able to make the bricks and raw materials but not yet
build the house'.
intermediate 'stepping stone' cells the scientists generated are called neuro-mesodermal
progentiors (NMPs). Dr Briscoe says NMPs 'have largely been overlooked - even
though they were first discovered more than 100 years ago'.
off with mouse or human embryonic stem cells, the scientists stimulated two key
cell signalling pathways, Wnt and Fgf, to push the cells towards becoming NMPs.
Further exposure of the NMPs to different combinations of these two cell
signals then induced the production of nerve or muscle cells - both in in vitro experiments and by the
transplantation of NMPs into chick embryos.
Val Wilson, the co-leader of the research from the MRC Centre for Regenerative
Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: 'NMPs are important because
they're the source of the spinal cord and most of the bones and muscles in our
body. But they have been like Cinderella cells. Although recognised for more
than a century in the embryo, they've tended to be ignored by scientists trying
to make these cell types in a dish'.
Researching embryonic development is
technically challenging and requires cell culture models to accurately replicate
developmental stages. Being able to generate NMPs should therefore improve
researchers' understanding of how the spinal cord develops but also how
problems can arise.
The study was published in the journal PLOS Biology.