Researchers create spinal cord connectors from human stem cells, heralding breakthrough

It's taken many years and more than a bit of brainpower, but researchers at the University of Central Florida have finally found a way to create neuromuscular connectors between muscle and spinal cord cells, using only stem cells. Led by bioengineer James Hickman, the team pulled off the feat with help from Brown University Professor Emeritus Herman Vandenburgh, who collected muscle stem cell samples from adult volunteers. After close examination, they then discovered that under the right conditions, these samples could be combined with spinal cord cells to form connectors, or neuromuscular junctions, which the brain uses to control the body's muscles. UCF's engineers say the technique, described in the December issue of the journal Biomaterials, marks a major breakthrough for the development of "human-on-a-chip" models -- systems that simulate organ functions and have the potential to drastically accelerate medical research and drug development. These junctions could also pay dividends for research on Lou Gehrig's disease or spinal cord injuries, though it remains unclear whether we can expect to see these benefits anytime soon.