A PREVIOUSLY unknown property of bacteria could pave the way for breakthrough stem-cell treatments, Scottish scientists have discovered.
Researchers at Edinburgh University have found the bugs are able to change the make-up of nerve cells so they take on the properties of stem cells.
It is the first time scientists have been able to confirm that the bacteria found in natural infections could be used in research into better treatments for a range of diseases, including meningitis and leprosy.
Dr Rob Buckle, head of regenerative medicine at the university’s Medical Research Council, said: “This ground-breaking new research shows bacteria 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.
“This knowledge may help scientists improve the safety and utility of lab-produced stem cells and help drive the development of new regenerative therapies for a range of human diseases, which are currently impossible to treat.”
Stem cells, often referred to as the building blocks of the body, can develop into any of the different cell types within in the body.
Scientists came across the new discovery while looking into the bacteria that cause leprosy, an infectious neuro-degenerative 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 the nerve cells, known as Schwann cells.
Once the infection was fully established, the bacteria were able to convert the Schwann cells to become like stem cells.
As with typical stem cells, they showed they could then become other cell types, including muscle cells, enabling the bacteria to spread to tissues in the body.
The experts believe a mechanism of this type exists in other infectious diseases and hope their discovery will lead to further research to improve treatments and earlier diagnosis of infectious diseases.
Lead researcher of the Scottish project, Professor Anura Rambukkana, said: “We have found a new weapon in 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 leprosy, much earlier.”
Dr Rambukkana added: “This is very intriguing as it is the first time 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.”
The study is one of a growing number of projects to highlight how stem cells have the potential to cure a range of illnesses due to their ability to develop into many different types of cells in the body.