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McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences Newsmagazine — Volume 9, Issue 3, Fall 2015

Blood to feeling — Scientists turn blood into neural cells

McMaster scientist Mick Bhatia and his team have discovered how to make adult sensory neurons from human patients simply by having them roll up their sleeve and providing a blood sample.

Specifically, they can now directly convert adult human blood cells to both central nervous system (i.e. brain and spinal cord) neurons, as well as neurons in the peripheral nervous system (i.e. the rest of the body) that are responsible for pain, temperature and itch perception. This means that how a person's nervous system cells react and respond to stimuli, can be determined from his or her blood.

The breakthrough was featured on the cover of the journal Cell Reports and was led by Bhatia, director of the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute and a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences. Also playing a key role was co-author Karun Singh, holder of the David Braley Chair in Human Stem Cell Research.

Currently, scientists and physicians have a limited understanding of the complex issue of pain and how to treat it. The peripheral nervous system is made up of different types of nerves — some are mechanical (i.e. feel pressure) and others detect temperature. In extreme conditions, pain or numbness is perceived by the brain using signals sent by these peripheral nerves.

"Now we can take easy-to-obtain blood samples, and make the main cell types of neurological systems — the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system — in a dish that is specialized for each patient," said Bhatia. "Nobody has ever done this with adult blood. Ever."

Now we can take easy-to-obtain blood samples, and make the main cell types of neurological systems — the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system — in a dish that is specialized for each patient. Nobody has ever done this with adult blood. Ever.

— Mick Bhatia

His team's revolutionary, patented approach paves the way for the discovery of new pain drugs that don't just numb the perception of pain.