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New cell discovery may lead to treating incurable neurological disease

The research was led by investigators at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and may help those suffering from diseases like ALS and multiple sclerosis.
Credit: Ohio State University Medical Center
Dr. Benjamin Segal (left) and Dr. Andrew Sas examine the properties of a newly-discovered cell in a lab at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. This immune cell has the potential to treat neurological conditions long believed to be incurable, including multiple sclerosis, ALS and spinal cord injuries.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The discovery of a new cell may be the key component in treating previously incurable degenerative neurological diseases, such as ALS and multiple sclerosis.

A team of researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The University of Michigan discovered a new type of immune cell that reportedly not only rescues damaged nerve cells from death, but even partially reverses nerve fiber damage. The team used a mouse model in their research.

"This immune cell subset secretes growth factors that enhance the survival of nerve cells following traumatic injury to the central nervous system. It stimulates severed nerve fibers to regrow in the central nervous system, which is really unprecedented," said Dr. Benjamin Segal, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at The Ohio State College of Medicine and co-director of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center's Neurological Institute. "In the future, this line of research might ultimately lead to the development of novel cell based therapies that restore lost neurological functions across a range of conditions."

The study's findings have been published in the journal Nature Immunology

The cell discovered by researchers is a granulocyte, which is a type of white blood cell containing small granules. The most common granulocytes typically help the body fight off infections. "The unique cell type resembles an immature neutrophil but is distinctive in possessing neuroprotective and neuroregenerative properties. It drives central nervous system axon (nerve) regrowth in vivo, in part through the secretion of a cocktail of growth factors," a press release surrounding the research explains.

Using mice, researchers injected the immature neutrophils into mice with crush injury to their optic nerve or lacerated nerve fibers in the spinal cord. Mice injected with the new neutrophil subset, but did not receive more typical mature neutrophils, saw new nerve fiber growth.

Researchers will continue to harness the cell and expand it in the lab to enhance its healing effects. It is their hope that these cells can then be injected into patients to improve function and mobility while also slowing or stopping neurological degeneration. 

Editor's Note: The below story aired in September of 2019