Sensory interneurons are specialized cells in the human body that enables us to experience the world through real, tactile experiences.
But degenerative conditions, like forms of paralysis, can impede our unique sense of touch, limiting our ability to experience life. It can keep us safe, like when we perceive danger through touching a hot stove or sharp edge.
A new study from UCLA is exploring how to restore the feelings of touch in those suffering from paralysis, giving them a second opportunity to enjoy & experience the world as intended.
OUT OF TOUCH
According to the journal Stem Cell Reports, the published study revealed a remarkable first: the researchers had successfully transformed human stem cells into sensory interneurons.
The study built off previous work, published by Butler University, which detailed how particular proteins could contribute to the development of sensory interneurons in chicken embryos.
Samantha Butler, a UCLA associate professor of neurobiology and a member of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center, and her team took that pre-existing research a step further, and applied them to human cells.
They added proteins to human embryonic stem cells, creating a mixture that resulted in two types of sensory interneurons: dI1 sensory interneurons, which gives us a sense of where our body is in relation to what’s around us, and dI3 sensory interneurons, which give us the ability to feel pressure.
MORE THAN A FEELING
Butler’s team was encouraged, but continued to push their boundaries. They soon learned their technique of creating that sensory interneuron mixture could be done via a combination of induced pluripotent stem cells and signaling molecules.
The difference here is induced pluripotent stem cells are created directly from the patient, not another stem cell donor. These reprogrammed cells therefore give researchers more flexibility towards diving deeper into restorative treatments, as well as limiting the potential for incompatible cell rejection.
The main goal of research like this is usually working towards helping paralyzed people walk again, but Butler and her team believe in restoring a broader experience of touch.
“The field has for a long time focused on making people walk again. Making people feel again doesn’t have quite the same ring,” Butler said in a UCLA Newsroom press release.
“But to walk, you need to be able to feel and to sense your body in space; the two processes really go hand in glove.”
Having said that, the UCLA researchers do hope their research will one day extend or assist in the development of restorative therapies for paralysis: “This is a long path. We haven’t solved how to restore touch but we’ve made a major first step by working out some of these protocols to create sensory interneurons,” Butler adds.
In the near future, Butler says her team will focus on additional studies that’ll help refine their stem cell mixtures, opening the door to potential coaxing stem cells into more, various types of sensory interneurons.
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