A discovery about the way in which bugs spread throughout the body could help to develop stem cell treatments.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found that bacteria are able to change the make-up of supporting cells within the nerve system, called Schwann cells, so that they take on the properties of stem cells.
Because stem cells can develop into any of the different cell types in the body - including liver and brain cells - mimicking this process could aid research into a range of degenerative conditions.
Scientists made the discovery studying bacteria that cause leprosy, which is an infectious neurodegenerative disease. The study, carried out in mice, found that in the early stages of infection, the bacteria were able to protect themselves from the body's immune system by hiding in Schwann cells or glial cells.
Once the infection was fully established, the bacteria were able to convert the Schwann cells to become like stem cells.
Like typical stem cells, these cells were pluripotent, meaning they could then become other cell types, for instance muscle cells. This enabled the bacteria to spread to tissues in the body.
The bacteria-generated stem cells also have another unexpected characteristic. They can secrete specialised proteins - called chemokines - that attract immune cells, which in turn pick up the bacteria and spread the infection.
Scientists believe these mechanisms, used by leprosy bacteria, could exist in other infectious diseases.
Knowledge of this newly discovered tactic used by bacteria to spread infection could help research to improve treatments and earlier diagnosis of infectious diseases.
The study is published in the journal Cell.
Professor Anura Rambukkana, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research, said: "Bacterial infections can completely change a cell's make up, which could have a wide-range of implications, including in stem cell research.
"We have found a new weapon in a bacteria's armoury that enables them to spread effectively in the body by converting infected cells to stem cells. Greater understanding of how this occurs could help research to diagnose bacterial infectious diseases, such as leprosy, much earlier."
The study, carried out in Professor Rambukkana's laboratories at the University of Edinburgh and the Rockefeller University, was funded by the US National Institutes of Health.