New technique converts skin cells into brain cells

June 10th, 2011 - 2:54 pm ICT by IANS  

London, June 10 (IANS) It is now possible to reprogramme mature cells from human skin directly into brain cells, bypassing the stem cell stage, a new breakthrough has shown.

Lund University’s research group in Sweden has succeeded in creating the first ever specific types of nerve cells from human skin, avoiding many of the ethical dilemmas and pitfalls of stem cell research.

For instance, skipping the stem cell stage probably eliminates the risk of tumours forming after these cells are transplanted, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported.

The unexpectedly simple technique involves activating three genes in the skin cells which are already known to be active in the formation of brain cells at the foetal stage, according to a Lund statement.

By reprogramming connective tissue cells, called fibroblasts, directly into nerve cells, a new field has been opened up with the potential to take research on cell transplants to the next level.

The discovery represents a fundamental change in the view of the function and capacity of mature cells. By taking mature cells as their starting point instead of stem cells, Lund researchers also avoid the ethical issues linked to research on embryonic stem cells.

Malin Parmar, the project leader at Lund, said: “We didn’t really believe this would work; to begin with, it was mostly just an interesting experiment to try. However, we soon saw that the cells were surprisingly receptive to instructions.”

The study also shows that the skin cells can be directed to become certain types of nerve cells.

In experiments where further two genes were activated, the researchers have been able to produce dopamine brain cells, the type of cell which dies in Parkinson’s disease.

Before the direct conversion technique can be used in clinical practice, more research is needed on how the new nerve cells survive and function in the brain.

The vision for the future is that doctors will be able to produce the brain cells that a patient needs from a simple skin or hair sample.

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