Neural crest stem cells generate a wide array of cell types and tissues and actually give rise to the autonomic and enteric nervous systems along with endocrine cells, bone and smooth muscle cells. The cells can be isolated from the hair follicle bulge as multipotent stem cells, and then expanded in culture into millions of cells without losing stem cell markers.
"We grafted the cells into mice that have spinal cord injuries and were encouraged by the results. The cells survived and integrated into the spinal cord, remaining at the site of transplantation and not forming tumors," Dr. Sieber-Blum says.
According to Dr. Sieber-Blum, subsets of the epidermal neural crest stem cells express markers for oligodendrocytes, the nerve-supporting cells that are essential for proper neuron function. She has been awarded a grant from the Biomedical Technology Alliance, a Milwaukee inter-institutional research group, to determine in collaboration with Brian Schmit, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at Marquette University, if the grafts lead to an improvement of spinal reflexes in the injured spinal cord of mice.
Dr. Sieber-Blum points out that the cells may also be useful to treat Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Hirschsprung's disease, stroke, peripheral neuropathies and ALS. Certain defects of the heart, and bone defects (degeneration, craniofacial birth defects) could also be treated through neural crest stem cell replacement therapy. Together, these conditions affect over 11 million people today in the US and are estimated to annually cost more than $170 billion.