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First step toward using stem cells to treat enteric nervous system disorders

SHEFFIELD (UK), August 2020  Scientists have made a breakthrough in understanding how the enteric nervous system forms. The findings, published in Stem Cell Reports, pave the way for using stem cells to understand and treat a range of diseases linked to the enteric nervous system.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield and University College London (UCL) identified a key stage in the formation of the enteric nervous system using pluripotent stem cells, which can generate any cell type in the body, and were able to generate enteric neurons in the lab. The enteric nervous system, which is embedded in the walls of the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, gallbladder and biliary tree, contains between 400 - 600 million nerves. It is crucial for everyday functions such as digestion, fluid absorption and communicating with the immune system.

Faults in the enteric nervous system are often linked to life-threatening digestive disorders such as Hirschprung’s disease, where nerves in the system are missing. Ongoing research has also suggested that Parkinson’s disease is initiated in the enteric nervous system before reaching the brain.

Anestis Tsakiridis, Ph.D., of the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Stem Cell Biology, who led the study along with Tom Frith, Ph.D., from the Francis Crick Institute, said, “Our findings show new promise for using stem cells to treat a range of diseases. We now plan to utilize these findings as the basis for developing stem cell-based approaches to treat and model diseases caused by dysfunction of the enteric nervous system.”

Dr. Frith added, “These results are a key first step into generating cells in a dish that may one day be used to help treat patients.”

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DOI: 10.1016/j.stemcr.2020.07.024