Skin Cells Turned Into Brain Cells

First Posted: Jun 09, 2012 10:10 AM EDT

Skin cells were recently made to mimic heart cells. In further research into reprogramming cells, a team of scientists from Gladstone Institutes have transformed skin cells into cells that behave like neurons.

By reprogramming cells, scientists are hoping to find better ways to treat diseases like Alzheimer's and heart disease.

"Many drug candidates -- especially those developed for neurodegenerative diseases -- fail in clinical trials because current models don't accurately predict the drug's effects on the human brain," said Dr. Huang, the head of the lab where the research was conducted. "Human neurons -- derived from reengineered skin cells -- could help assess the efficacy and safety of these drugs, thereby reducing risks and resources associated with human trials."

To achieve this, the scientists injected the Sox2 gene into both mouse and human skin cells. Soon, the skin cells developed into infant brain stem cells. These cells were able to reproduce as well, forming more neurons that eventually formed their own neural networks.

The research advances on older studies into reprogramming cells. Earlier research demonstrated how to turn skin cells into stem cells, a pluripotent state, which could then become various types of cells. Dr. Huang's new brain cells did not have to become stem cells first, and the skipping of the pluripotent state means a safer outcome.

"We wanted to see whether these newly generated neurons could result in tumor growth after transplanting them into mouse brains," said lead author of the paper Karen Ring, a UCSF Biomedical Sciences graduate student. "Instead we saw the reprogrammed cells integrate into the mouse's brain -- and not a single tumor developed." 

When turning stem cells into other types of cells, some of the stem cells may develop mutations, or go "rogue." These cells could then affect the patient in undesirable ways, such as creating more tumors.

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