The scientists stumbled on the discovery while researching the way leprosy spreads around the body. The mechanism of the hijacking is unclear, but reproducing it could lead to new stem-cell-based therapeutic strategies.
The bacteria appeared to trigger Schwann cells’ plasticity, the ability to revert to an immature state and turn into new types of cells. (Healthy Schwann cells do so to help nerves recover and regenerate after an injury.)
“This is a very sophisticated mechanism — it seems that the bacterium knows the mechanistic interaction of the Schwann cell better than we do,” says Anura Rambukkana, a regeneration biologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who led the study.
The study concludes that “these findings provide an unexpected link between cellular reprogramming and host-pathogen interaction.”
Reprogramming accompanies epigenetic changes and renders infected cells highly plastic, migratory, and immunomodulatory.