Alright y’all, let’s get real. Most of us are pretty comfortable with the idea that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can become cartilage, bone, fat, and connective tissue cells (among other awesome properties). Thousands upon thousands of patients’ worth of studies have been published using bone marrow-derived MSCs for everything from avascular necrosis to peripheral artery disease, many of which constitute the most effective, ground-breaking treatments for their respective pathologies. But it’s still not enough, right? If you’re at all like me, you hope to see stem cell technology evolve to the point of keeping spare parts in jars, so we can live in a future where organ donors are an archaic thing of the past. That is just not happening when MSCs can only become a select few cell types. Brace yourselves though: scientists just found a way to change that.

Inkjet Printers Create Graphite Structures That Make MSCs Happy

A team at Iowa State University has exploited the flexibility of inkjet printers and the electrical conductivity of graphene to print multi-layer graphene circuits capable of carrying electrical currents directly to any cells on those circuits. Since the printed graphene creates nanostructures that attract MSCs and encourage them to grow happily, scientists were able to send small electrical pulses to the cells. Using 100 millivolts for 10 minutes per day for a total of fifteen days, MSCs became Schwann-like cells. That’s straight up legendary. Let me explain.

Schwann Cells Are Vital to Nerve Function

Nerves send electrical signals from your brain to the rest of your body, and vice versa. In order for those very tiny electrical signals to travel those distances quickly, the “wires” need to be insulated. This is one of the many support services provided by Schwann cells. They have also been known to form a tube that leads damaged nerve axons toward the disconnected neuron, which is a function that falls somewhere into the category of nerve regeneration. In fact, in the last twenty or so years, studies have shown that transplanted Schwann cells may help re-myelinate (insulate!) multiple-sclerosis patients’ damaged nerves and aid functional recovery from spinal cord injury.

Graphene Conducted Electrical Impulses Efficiently Differentiate MSCs

The scientific community has known for some time that most cells in the human body can be reprogrammed and then forced down differentiation pathways using genetic and/or chemical agents. The problem with most of those technologies is scale up: they are *incredibly* inefficient. Instead of starting with a fully adult, differentiated cell, these researchers have started with mesenchymal stem cells. Though they are partially differentiated, they are still multipotent, and are easily retrieved from the adult human body in usable numbers. Most importantly, when applied to an inkjet-printed graphene circuit, they can be differentiated with 85% efficiency into Schwann-like cells, without the use of chemical or genetic agents. That right there is what science is all about!

Good News! Graphene + MSCs = Progress!

The research team has already suggested using these small, flexible graphene circuits as implantable nerve regeneration tools, which in and of itself would be an epic development, but think about this: what if different electrical signals could generate other kinds of tissues when combined with mechanical stimulation? The possibilities are really endless, and the cells they use are being used right this moment in surgeries all over the world. This technology could produce some groundbreaking technologies in the very near future, and that’s why inkjet-printed graphene circuits combined with mesenchymal stem cells are this week’s good news about adult stem cells!

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