All wired up! – Stem cells bring hope for treating MS and spinal cord injuries

You might be aware that many functions in your body happen because your brain sends different electrical signals all around your body. But did you know that the fastest nerve impulse travels faster than a Formula 1 racing car, at a speed of about 250 mph? In the same way as electric wires, nerves also need to be well insulated to ensure efficient and uninterrupted electrical signals. Myelin is the insulator around your nerve fibers.

 

“The fastest nerve impulse travels faster than a Formula 1 racing car, at a speed of about 250 mph.”

In many diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis, MS, myelin gradually breaks down and nerves can no longer efficiently transmit signals between the brain and body. This causes various symptoms, such as problems with walking, blurred vision, numbness and problems with remembering. We still do not know exactly what causes MS disease.

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Our team currently study how to repair myelin damages. Meeri Mäkinen is one of the researchers carrying out the nerve research with oligodendrocytes, cells which are able to repair myelin damages. “In here, I have one cell. Only one. I noticed it has a remarkably interesting electric current”, she says and jumps up from her chair. Every cell counts in nerve research and even one cell may offer new information which takes researchers a step forward.

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Currently, nerve related issues are researched and tested on animals. “Animal nerve cells do not work exactly like human cells and thus are not 100 % comparable. It is much more accurate and reliable when we use human nerve cells”, Meeri reminds. Here, at the Human Spare Parts project, we can grow nerve cells from human stem cells in our laboratory. At the same time we are able to monitor how the nerves network with each other and get more information on different diseases. Our goal is to build a comprehensive MS disease model to understand the disease better and develop treatments. Not only do we get more reliable information on brain related diseases, but we also decrease the need for animal testing.

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There are drugs that can reduce symptoms and MS attacks, or slow down the progression of disability. However, there is no cure for MS. We try to understand the functionality of our bodies’ myelin production and which cells or conditions could repair and promote myelin production. In the future, we might be able to help people suffering from diseases caused by the lack of myelin with stem cell treatments.

Our goal is to research how we could promote myelin production or how to make it faster in order to treat MS or spinal cord injuries.

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