Friday, 25 January 2013

Scientists use leprosy bacteria to create stem cells

British scientists recently announced a new method for creating stem cells, simply by infecting Schwann cells with leprosy bacteria!

The researchers came across this startling discovery while studying, on a rodent model, how the Mycobacterium Leprae bacterium (which causes Leprosy) spreads over the host’s body. The bacterium first attacks Schwann cells, the principal glia of the peripheral nervous system. It starts by wrapping around them and continues by stopping any kind of electrical signal transmission. 

Image of a cultured Schwann Cell
A cultured  Schwann Cell
It then reprogrammes the Schwann cells into a less differentiated and more stem cell-like nature. It seems that it somehow deactivates the genes responsible for somatic cell functions and activates genes associated with embryonic and developmental functions.

Mycobacterium leprae bacteria (red coloured)

After the infection, the newly created Schwann-derived stem cells start travelling all over the body carrying many leprosy bacteria alongside. Once a new tissue is reached, the bacteria jump over it and infect it as well. 

According to the researchers, the study has many potential applications including:
  • Creating better methods for diagnosing and treating leprosy and other infectious diseases, as they believe that the mechanisms employed by leprosy bacteria may also be existent in other types of bacteria
  • Use leprosy bacteria as a new means for creating stem cells

Leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease), is a chronic disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. When left untreated, the disease may cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes many times leading to full loss of  feet and/or hand function. 
There are approximately 200,000 new cases reported every year, with the majority of occurrences reported in developing countries.The disease is more common in children than adults.

Informational video about leprosy

Masaki T, Qu J, Cholewa-Waclaw J, Burr K, Raaum R, & Rambukkana A (2013). Reprogramming Adult Schwann Cells to Stem Cell-like Cells by Leprosy Bacilli Promotes Dissemination of Infection. Cell, 152 (1-2), 51-67 PMID: 23332746

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