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Stem cells, nose cells and healing

Last year we wrote about the uses of stem cells to help diabetics produce insulin, and to create new tissues, nerves and organs. These are non embryonic stem cells so there are no ethical concerns and no problems. (Embryo-derived cells have caused tumour growth.)

Among these adult stem cells the most amazing so far are those in our nose. Stem cells from the olfactory mucosa - cells lining the inside of the nose which are involved in the sense of smell - appear to have the same ability as embryonic stem cells to give rise to many different cell types. This and a second unique property attracted neurologist Geoff Raisman.

Raisman is the neuroplastic pioneer who realized - against the resistance of the medical profession - that the brain and central nervous system are plastic - they have the capacity to reorganise themselves after loss or trauma. He has been working with the olfactory cells to overcome a huge problem in physical healing – the inability of nerve cells to connect through the scar tissue that forms after an injury. Raisman realized that the regenerating olfactory cells in the nose had no problem making these connections.

Olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) belong to a class of cells known as glials ("gluey" cells). The glials owe their guiding potential to their tiny, porous canal-like shape through which new nerve fibres can grow, and seek their corresponding partners across the injury.

Raisman has built a research team of scientists from around the world. Working under the auspices of the Institute of Neurology and University College London, he has been working to graft the olfactory stem cells of patients to the site of their spinal cord injuries to persuade the cells of the scar to open up, making room for the new pathways.

We should start hearing soon whether he has been successful in restoring normal sensation and movement to injured patients.