Researchers at Stanford University say they have found a way to convert human blood cells directly into neurons, which could help scientists study disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team said that just 1 milliliter of blood could be used to generate up to 50,000 neurons through a process called transdifferentiation. It works with both fresh and frozen blood samples.
“Blood is one of the easiest biological samples to obtain,” senior author Marius Wernig said in a statement. “Nearly every patient who walks into a hospital leaves a blood sample, and often these samples are frozen and stored for future study.”
The technique to make this possible was first developed in Wernig’s laboratory in 2010. The team coaxed cells into becoming pluripotent, which is a developmentally flexible stage when they can become almost any type of tissue.
This process is laborious and time-consuming. But in this study, the researchers found that by focusing on immune cells called T cells, it took just a few days. This was despite T cells having a more rounded structure, compared to neuron cells that are long and skinny.
“It’s kind of shocking how simple it is to convert T cells into functional neurons in just a few days,” Wernig said. “T cells are very specialized immune cells with a simple round shape, so the rapid transformation is somewhat mind-boggling.”
As Scope notes, the human immune cells were triggered to convert into human neurons with the genetic makeup of the person’s blood. This “opens the door to the study of an unprecedented number of neurons from patients with complex disorders like schizophrenia and autism.”
The team noted that the neuron cells they produced weren't perfect, as they couldn’t form connections with each other. But they could perform other tasks, and they could be a key tool in studying these and other conditions.
The origins of schizophrenia and autism, and ways to treat them, have remained elusive for decades. By producing more neurons from a particular patient in the lab, however, it could be possible to hone in on answers to those questions and more.
“This technique is a breakthrough that opens the possibility to learn about complex disease processes by studying large numbers of patients,” said Wernig.