Gene research brings schizophrenia hope


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The Independent Online

Skin cells from patients suffering from schizophrenia have been turned into nerve cells, enabling scientists to "model" the disease in a test tube so that new drugs and treatments can be tested on the condition, which affects 1 per cent of the population.

Researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, found that the genetically modified skin cells, which developed into neuron cells found in the brain when grown in test tubes, made fewer nerve connections than similar cells from healthy people, suggesting one biological explanation for the mental disorder.

"This is the first time that a complex mental disease has been modelled in live human cells," said Professor Fred Gage, a neurodegenerative diseases researcher at the institute and lead author of a study on the subject, published in the journal Nature.

Salk scientists transformed the skin cells of patients with a family history of schizophrenia into embryonic-like cells using a technique called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). They then grew the resulting stem cells into mature neuron cells, which grew fewer nerve connections with other cells.

Kristen Brennand, a genetics researcher at the institute, said: "Nobody knows how much the environment contributes to the disease. By growing neurons in a dish, we can take the environment out of the equation and start focusing on the underlying biological problems."