18 January 2013

Researchers Discover Bacteria That Can Transform Regular Cells Into Stem Cells

Stem cells (green) carrying bacteria differentiate into skeletal muscles, passively transmitting the infection to muscles.
Credit: Dr Toshihiro Masaki, MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, The University of Edinburgh
Researchers discover that bacteria can transform regular stem cells into stem cells. This discovery can lead to better stem cell treatments in the future.

Pluripotent Stem Cells are being considered the next best miracle cure for most diseases. Its pluripotency is what makes these cells special when it comes to medical science. Pluripotency is the ability to change into any other type of cell or tissue. This process is called differentiation.

There are different kinds of stem cells. There are blood stem cells, cardiac stem cells, brain stem cells and others. These can only differentiate into a specific cell or tissue. Only embryonic stem cells are pluripotent and can differentiate into any other cell except into another embryo.

Stem cell research hit a snag when President Bush vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 allowing the federal funding of embryonic stem cells because of moral reasons. Scientists were permitted to use existing stem cell lines harvested before the bill was vetoed.

In 2007, Shinya Yamanaka and his team at Kyoto University successfully transformed a non-pluripotent cell into a pluripotent stem cell without using embryonic stem cells. This was done by inducing specific genes within the cells to revert back to being pluripotent again. Yamanaka and fellow stem cell researcher John Gurdon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent."

Currently, there are four types of pluripotent stem cells:
  • Embryonic Stem Cell
  • Nuclear Transplant Stem Cell
  • Parthenote Stem Cell
  • Induced Stem Cell
The first three types require a fertilized egg cell to form.

Scientists are looking into stem cells as treatment for incurable diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's Disease, and cancer.

Using Bacteria To Transform Cells Into Stem Cells

A discovery about the way in which bugs spread throughout the body could help to develop stem cell treatments.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found that bacteria are able to change the make-up of nerve cells so that they take on the properties of stem cells.

Because stem cells can develop into any of the different cell types in the body – including liver and brain cells – mimicking this process could aid research into a range of degenerative conditions.

Scientists made the discovery studying bacteria that cause leprosy, which is an infectious neurodegenerative disease. The study, carried out in mice, found that in the early stages of infection, the bacteria were able to protect themselves from the body's immune system by hiding in nerve cells – known as Schwann cells or glial cells.

Once the infection was fully established, the bacteria were able to convert the nerve cells to become like stem cells.

Like typical stem cells, these cells were pluripotent, meaning they could then become other cell types, for instance muscle cells. This enabled the bacteria to spread to tissues in the body.

Video: The promise of research with stem cells

The bacteria-generated stem cells also have another unexpected characteristic. They can secrete specialised proteins – called chemokines – that attract immune cells, which in turn pick up the bacteria and spread the infection.

Scientists believe these mechanisms, used by leprosy bacteria, could exist in other infectious diseases.

Knowledge of this newly discovered tactic used by bacteria to spread infection could help research to improve treatments and earlier diagnosis of infectious diseases.

The study is published in the journal Cell.

Professor Anura Rambukkana, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research, said: "Bacterial infections can completely change a cell's make up, which could have a wide-range of implications, including in stem cell research.

"We have found a new weapon in a bacteria's armoury that enables them to spread effectively in the body by converting infected cells to stem cells. Greater understanding of how this occurs could help research to diagnose bacterial infectious diseases, such as leprosy, much earlier."

The study, carried out in Professor Rambukkana's laboratories at the University of Edinburgh and the Rockefeller University, was funded by the US National Institutes of Health.

It showed that when an infected Schwann cell was reprogrammed to become like a stem cell, it lost the function of Schwann cells to protect nerve cells, which transmit signals to the brain. This led to nerves becoming damaged.

Professor Rambukkana added: "This is very intriguing as it is the first time that we have seen that functional adult tissue cells can be reprogrammed into stem cells by natural bacterial infection, which also does not carry the risk of creating tumorous cells.

"Potentially you could use the bacteria to change the flexibility of cells, turning them into stem cells and then use the standard antibiotics to kill the bacteria completely so that the cells could then be transplanted safely to tissue that has been damaged by degenerative disease."

Dr Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, added: "This ground-breaking new research shows that bacteria are able to sneak under the radar of the immune system by hijacking a naturally occurring mechanism to 'reprogramme' cells to make them look and behave like stem cells. This discovery is important not just for our understanding and treatment of bacterial disease, but for the rapidly progressing field of regenerative medicine. In future, this knowledge may help scientists to improve the safety and utility of lab-produced pluripotent stem cells and help drive the development of new regenerative therapies for a range of human diseases, which are currently impossible to treat."

Professor Rambukkana, who is Chair of Regeneration Biology at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, is also a member of the University's Centre for Neuroregeneration and Centre for Infectious Diseases.


University of Edinburgh
MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM)
US National Institutes of Health
Rockefeller University
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