Legend bacteria turn adult cells into stem cells

2013/01/23 Galarraga Aiestaran, Ana - Elhuyar Zientzia Iturria: Elhuyar aldizkaria

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have discovered the ability of leprosy bacteria to reprogram mature cells into stem cells. This mechanism has been known during the study of leprosy expansion, through which bacteria spread through the body.
Schwann cells (green) reprogrammed by leprosy bacteria, becoming muscle cells (red). Ed. Masaki et al./Cell

The first target of the legendary bacterium Mycobacterium leprae is Schwann cells. These cells surround and protect nerves and, in case of injuries, have the ability to reform and form nerves. Edinburgh researchers have isolated Schwann cells from mice and infected them with the bacteria. They have discovered that bacteria activate the natural capacity of Schwann cells, turning them into stem cells.

Infected cells migrate to the muscles and nervous system and become part of that tissue. By doing so, they help the bacteria infect new tissues. According to researchers, this same mechanism may be at the base of other diseases such as cancer and metabolic diseases.

The study has been published in the journal Cell and in addition to reporting the mechanism found, researchers have advanced that it is possible that one day in the laboratory this same mechanism is used to obtain stem cells and develop treatments against certain diseases.