Skin cells 'turned into neurons' by US scientists
11 June BBC
A Californian team say they have managed to convert human skin cells
directly into functioning brain cells. The scientists manipulated the
process by which DNA is transcribed within foetal skin cells to create
cells which behaved like neurons.
The technique had previously been demonstrated in mice, says the
report in Nature.
It could be used for neurological research, and might conceivably be
used to create brain cells for transplant. Reprogrammed skin. The
scientists used genetically modified viruses to introduce four different
"transcription factors" into foetal skin cells. These transcription
factors play a role in the "reading" of DNA and the encoding of proteins
within the cell.
They found the introduction of these four transcription factors had
the effect of switching a small portion of the skin cells into cells
which functioned like neurons.
Unlike other approaches, the process did not involve the
reprogramming of the skin cells into stem cells, but rather the direct
transformation of skin cells into neurons.
Marius Wernig, an assistant professor of pathology at Stanford
University School of Medicine in California, was one of the researchers.
"We showed that it is possible to convert human skins cells directly
into nerve cells which look and behave like nerve cells which usually
only exist in the brain," he told BBC News.
"It was known that it was possible to change a specialised cell back
into a stem cell, what's called an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS),
but it was not known whether a specialised cell could be pushed into
another direction, other than backwards."
Professor Wernig conceded that there were examples, some dating back
many years, where specialised cells have been switched into similar cell
types, but he believes this is the first example of where cells have
undergone such radical conversion.
He believes the immediate application will be in modelling diseases,
whereby skin cells from a patient with a known neurological condition
could be used to produce new brain cells for research.
"It is very very difficult to look into the brain. There is a big
skull which protects the brain very well and therefore it's difficult to
image," he said.
"Everything that can be done at a cellular level is only possible
after a patient has died, by which time the disease is usually in the
final stages and you have no chance of seeing how the disease develops."