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Cell Fusions During Inflammation May Protect Neurons

Surprise finding could lead to new gene therapies for nervous system

WEDNESDAY, April 23 (HealthDay News) -- Chronic inflammation triggers cell fusions that may protect neurons, according to a Stanford University School of Medicine study.

In research with mice, the Stanford team found that chronic inflammation causes bone marrow-derived blood cells to migrate to the brain and fuse with a certain type of neuron 100 times more frequently than previously thought. After this fusion occurs, the blood-cell nuclei start to express previously silent, neuron-specific genes.

This surprise finding suggests that the creation of these fused cells (heterokaryons) may play a role in protecting neurons against damage, said the researchers, who added that it could help lead to cell-mediated gene therapy.

The study was published online in Nature Cell Biology.

"This finding was totally unprecedented and unexpected. We're getting hints that this might be biologically important, but we still have a lot to learn," senior author Helen Blau, director of the Baxter Laboratory in Genetic Pharmacology, said in a prepared statement.

Previous research showed that bone marrow-derived blood cells (which give risk to all the blood and immune cells in the body) did fuse with a variety of other cell types in the body. But this fusion occurred so rarely that it was believed to have little biological significance.

When inflammation causes bone marrow-derived stem cells to travel to the brain, they bind with Purkinje neurons located in the cerebellum. These neurons, which are involved in balance and motor control, form junctions between many other neurons. Purkinje neurons don't regenerate.

In this next phase of this research, Blau plans to investigate whether this kind of fusion can rescue damaged or dying Purkinje neurons.

More information

For more about neurons, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Stanford University School of Medicine, news release, April 20, 2008

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