tech science brain stem_cells teeth biotechnology neurons nervous_system stroke medicine health

These Brain Cells Have Bite

by Michael Keller

One could be forgiven for assuming the cells pictured above are neurons, the fundamental units that comprise the brain and nervous system. With branching dendrites growing off central nucleus-containing somas and thin axons reaching out to communicate with other cells, they basically are neurons. 

The thing is that these cells didn’t come from the brain, spinal cord or nerves—they came from teeth. Researchers at Australia’s University of Adelaide have pushed stem cells from the teeth of adult mice to morph into ones very much like neurons. 

They say that though the new cells aren’t quite neurons yet, they can link up into networks with potentially huge benefits for stroke sufferers. They also expect for the cells to become much more like neurons as they refine their technique.

"The reality is, treatment options available to the thousands of stroke patients every year are limited," said Kylie Ellis, who conducted the research as a doctoral student. "Stem cells from teeth have great potential to grow into new brain or nerve cells, and this could potentially assist with treatments of brain disorders, such as stroke."

The cells are harvested from the dental pulp, the living tissue at the center of every healthy tooth. Then, by placing the dental stem cells into an environment more like the brain than the tooth, they naturally started acquiring neuron-like characteristics. 

The team’s study using lab mice was published recently in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy. More pre-clinical and clinical trials must be done before it can be brought to market, but according to the University of Adelaide’s technology transfer office, the work has been licensed by regenerative medicine company Mesoblast “in a deal which could be a cure for stroke sufferers.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 15 million people suffer a stroke every year, with 5 million dying from it and another 5 million suffering permanent disability.

Ellis said in a statement that the goal of the work is to ultimately repair a patient’s brain or nervous system with their own modified dental stem cells. Using a patient’s own stem cells for brain therapy shouldn’t raise the problem of host rejection that often causes a problem for such procedures. It might also provide help to a patient long after the injury or disease.

"What we developed wasn’t identical to normal neurons, but the new cells shared very similar properties to neurons," she said. "They also formed complex networks and communicated through simple electrical activity, like you might see between cells in the developing brain."

All photos: Courtesy University of Adelaide.

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