Leprosy Can Turn Nerve Cells Into Stem Cells

The scourge of biblical times could open up a new way of making stem cells in the lab

Mycobacterium leprae, in red.
Mycobacterium leprae, in red. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Leprosy, the lesion-causing scourge of biblical times—a disease that even today can cause people to lose their limbs as they repeatedly injure the nerve-damaged tissue—may actually wind up being a boon for modern medicine if its recently discovered abilities can be harnessed. According to new research, says Nature, the leprosy-causing bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, can cause a certain type of fully-developed nerve cell to revert into something more like a stem cell—a baseline cell that can then develop into other types of cells. The scientists were working with mice, trying to figure out how the bacteria that causes leprosy moves around the body, when they made their discovery. Nature:

The researchers isolated Schwann cells from mice and infected them with M. leprae. The bacteria reprogrammed the cells into a stem-like state, turning off genes associated with mature Schwann cells and turning on embryonic or developmental ones.

The bacteria appeared to trigger Schwann cells’ plasticity, the ability to revert to an immature state and turn into new types of cells.

This power works in leprosy’s favor, because once the Schwann cells are reverted to their more general stage they start to move around to different parts of the body, carrying the leprosy-causing bacteria with them. But leprosy’s power may eventually work in our favor, too. The Guardian: “The new findings could also pave the way for a safe method of producing stem cells for researching neurodegenerative diseases and developing treatments for them.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Black Death Never Left – And It Might Defeat Our Best Defenses
The Two Newest Nobel Prize Winners Opened Up Pandora’s Box of Stem Cell Research And Cloning

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