Bacteria's hidden skill could pave way for stem cell treatments

Jan 17, 2013
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

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 supporting cells within the , called Schwann 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 – 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 Schwann cells or .

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

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

The bacteria-generated stem cells also have another unexpected characteristic. They can secrete specialised proteins – called chemokines – that attract , 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 , 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 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 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 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 .

Explore further: Research sheds light on what causes cells to divide

More information: Cell, Masaki et al.: "Reprogramming Adult Schwann Cells to Stem Cell-Like Cells by Leprosy Bacilli Promotes Dissemination of Infection." dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2012.12.014

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New way to weed out problem stem cells, making therapy safer

Sep 27, 2012

Mayo Clinic researchers have found a way to detect and eliminate potentially troublemaking stem cells to make stem cell therapy safer. Induced Pluripotent Stem cells, also known as iPS cells, are bioengineered from adult ...

Sniffing out a new source of stem cells

Jun 13, 2011

A team of researchers, led by Emmanuel Nivet, now at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, has generated data in mice that suggest that adult stem cells from immune system tissue in the smell-sensing region ...

Recommended for you

Top Japan lab dismisses ground-breaking stem cell study

5 hours ago

Japan's top research institute on Friday hammered the final nail in the coffin of what was once billed as a ground-breaking stem cell study, dismissing it as flawed and saying the work could have been fabricated.

Research sheds light on what causes cells to divide

Dec 24, 2014

When a rapidly-growing cell divides into two smaller cells, what triggers the split? Is it the size the growing cell eventually reaches? Or is the real trigger the time period over which the cell keeps growing ...

Locking mechanism found for 'scissors' that cut DNA

Dec 24, 2014

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered what keeps an enzyme from becoming overzealous in its clipping of DNA. Since controlled clipping is required for the production of specialized immune system proteins, ...

Scrapie could breach the species barrier

Dec 24, 2014

INRA scientists have shown for the first time that the pathogens responsible for scrapie in small ruminants (prions) have the potential to convert the human prion protein from a healthy state to a pathological ...

Extracting bioactive compounds from marine microalgae

Dec 24, 2014

Microalgae can produce high value health compounds like omega-3s , traditionally sourced from fish. With declining fish stocks, an alternative source is imperative. Published in the Pertanika Journal of Tr ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.