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The remarkable cells in the nose

Today via the Anchoress we learned that Australian researchers at Griffith University have published a study that adult stem-cells harvested from the noses of Parkinson’s patients developed into dopamine-producing brain cells after being transplanted into the brain of a lab rat. It is believed that Parkinson's patients lack sufficient dopamine. Because nose cells are "naive", they tend to become the cells they're with. In the study, they became dopamine-producing cells and straightened out the walk of the rat with Parkinson's.

You may have seen what we wrote about Geoff Raisman's work with those versatile nose cells -

Despite scientific belief to the contrary, as early as 1969 Raisman saw that the brain and central nervous system had an astonishing capacity to reorganise themselves after loss or trauma. His theory of neuroplasticity was finally accepted, and led to advances in treating dyslexia and victims of stroke.

However, while nerve cells do branch out to fill the gap left by dead nerve cells, they cannot seem to connect through the scar tissue that forms after an injury. This means that injured patients are left paralyzed, blind, or speechless.

Raisman realised that the regenerating olfactory cells in the nose have no problem making these connections. He conducted meticulous experiments and trials with the olfactory cells, and learned that they form conduits in the brain that guide the new growths of nerve fibres to their proper destinations. Could these cells do the same thing elsewhere?

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 the new nerve fibres grow and seek their corresponding partners across the gap or injury site.”

Grafting them to the site of an injury, “persuades the cells of the scar to open up, making room for the new pathway.” In a spinal-cord injury, the 'road' has been washed away. Raisman intuits that a graft of OEC cells in the spinal cord or in nerve-damaged shoulders could help to rebuild them.

“Raisman never forgets the day he first realised that his pathway hypothesis had worked - ‘It was in the depths of winter. I had gone to examine my rat model at 2am. My breath was like steam in the frozen night air.’ The rat, with an artificially induced lesion preventing movement of its left paw, had been treated with a graft of nasal glial cells from its own nose. ‘I offered it some food, and could hardly believe my eyes. It put its left paw forward. For a moment we looked at each other in shocked surprise. Then it took the food’. . . (Quotes from “The Miracle Worker” by John Cornwell, The Times)

These advances among the humble rat make us hope we'll see progress in humans next.