New hope in treating Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, an incurable neurological disease, which is particularly frequent in former soccer players, may come from stem cells. Nicholas Maragakis and his colleagues from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in Baltimore in the United States, have successfully conducted an important experiment in mice. In a study published in the online edition of ‘Nature Neuroscience’, the American researchers transplanted precursor cells called astrocytes, which function as support cells for neurons, into the mice with ALS. This allow the mice to survive for much longer.
ALS, pointed out the authors, is caused by the degeneration and death of so-called motor neurons, which are nervous cells that send signals to muscles to move. Recent research has demonstrated that astrocytes, belonging to the family of glial support cells, could be struck by the disease. Based on this concept, Maragakis’ team tried to treat an animal with ALS by transplanting early astrocytes.
The cells managed to survive in the spinal cord and the mice, although they did not heal completely, were able to survive much longer than normal. The beneficial effects, specified the scientists, require the presence of a particular transport protein in the precursor astrocytes: a scavenger protein able to remove excess glutamated neurotransmitters, a substance that is involved in the development of ALS, from motor neurons tied to astrocytes.