Using dental stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries: that’s what Prof. Anne des Rieux, a researcher at UCLouvain's Louvain Drug Research Institute (LDRI), has initiated. This week, she presents the progress of her group’s research at the Bioregate Forum in France, a forum that brings together key players in regenerative medicine.
‘The spinal cord is not much stronger than a tomato’, Prof. des Rieux says. ‘Even with the spine to protect it, it’s an extremely fragile area.’
This researcher at LDRI's Advanced Drug Delivery and Biomaterials (ADDB) Unit is working on the potential of stem cells of dental origin to repair the central nervous system. The results obtained in her laboratory regarding spinal cord repair are promising.
A spinal cord lesion is a specific pathology. It occurs following a trauma, sports injury or car accident, for example. The spinal cord, the tube that connects our brain to the rest of the body, allows information to circulate. When it receives a blow, it regenerates with difficulty. Some nerve cells, such as neurons, die as a result of the shock and thus no longer do their job, which is to transmit information between different parts of the body. This explains why some patients no longer feel their feet or legs.
Unfortunately, long after the initial trauma has occurred, the extent of the lesion worsens and the physiological consequences are significant. Treating this lesion remains impossible. ‘We don’t know how to reverse the effects’, Prof. des Rieux explains. ‘In general the treatment consists of surgery, anti-inflammatory drugs and a long process of adjustment. But there really isn’t any curative treatment right now.’
A tiny dental bud
It was a meeting with Prof. Julian Leprince, a dentist colleague whose research focuses on the regeneration of dental pulp, that drew her interest in cells of a peculiar origin. ‘When teeth, such as wisdom teeth, are still young they look a bit like little pearls’, Prof. des Rieux explains. ‘At the level of the future root, a small bud is present: the apical papilla. It’s filled with cells, a small tissue that will give birth to dental roots.’
This tissue is a ‘niche’ of mesenchymal stem cell , which can generate different types of cells such as bone, fat or cartilage cells. ‘The advantage of these cells is that they’re easy to access’, she says. ‘Their regenerative properties positively influence spinal cord repair: this is what we discovered during Dr Pauline De Berdt’s thesis’.
‘After implanting an apical papilla in a spinal cord lesion, locomotor functions improved in the laboratory. This work has been achieved thanks to numerous collaborations and financial support from the FNRS, UCLouvain and the International Foundation for Research in Paraplegia (IRP). The next step: understanding what, in the papilla’s structure, is behind this regenerative effect.’
A glance at Anne des Rieux's bio
Professor Anne des Rieux is an FNRS research associate at UCLouvain. She is a member of the Advanced Drug Delivery and Biomaterials (ADDB) Unit of the Louvain Drug Research Institute (LDRI).
She earned a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences from UCLouvain in 2006, specialising in the oral delivery of drugs, before earning a BAEF scholarship to pursue a postdoctorate at the Shea Lab of Northwestern University (Chicago), where she developed growth factor delivery strategies for spinal cord repair. She became an FNRS research associate in 2011, then established her own unit within the LDRI, focusing on the delivery of drugs and stem cells for central nervous system repair.