Hope for millions of Alzheimer's sufferers as scientists make brain cells from human skin
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Thursday 14 July 2011
Skin cells from a 30-year-old woman have been turned directly into mature nerve cells similar to those found in the brain using a procedure that promises to revolutionise the emerging field of regenerative medicine.
Click HERE to upload graphic (128k jpg)
Scientists said they were astonished to discover that they could convert a person's skin tissue into functioning nerve cells – bypassing an intermediate stem-cell stage – by the relatively simple procedure of adding a few short strands of RNA, a genetic molecule similar to DNA.
The breakthrough could soon lead to the generation of different types of human brain cells in a test tube which could be used to study a range of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
"A major problem in neurobiology has been the lack of a good human model. Neurons aren't like blood. They're not something people want to give up," said Gerald Crabtree, professor of pathology at Stanford University Medical Centre in California.
The findings may also one day allow doctors to grow nerve cells directly from a patient's skin cells to regenerate damaged parts of their brain or spinal cord. It would for instance bypass the need to produce stem cells by creating human embryos or embryonic-like tissue.
Previous research has shown that stem cells derived from early embryos could be converted into mature nerve cells. Scientists have also produced neurons from genetically modified skin cells, but these were first converted into embryonic-like stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, as an intermediate stage.
However, scientists who carried out the latest study published in the journal Nature have described how they jumped straight from simple skin cells into fully-functioning brain cells by adding two short strands of RNA. "It was very weird. We were astounded," Professor Crabtree said.
"What we made are neurons that are characteristic of the frontal cortex [of the brain] – what you'd imagine would be the most difficult [nerve cells] to make. They're the ones we think with, that we use to put two things together and see the connections, not the ones involved in evolutionary older emotional responses."
The insertion of two key RNA molecules into the woman's skin cells appear to trigger changes to a "molecular machine" that controls chromosomes. This leads to the subsequent development of the skin cells into mature nerve cells which are able to function and behave just like real neurons, Professor Crabtree said.
"They seem to be indistinguishable at this time. We can make both excitory and inhibitory neurons," he said.
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
General Election 2015: David Cameron catching up in polls – but he badly needs a clear lead
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on
South Africa xenophobic attacks: Shops looted and violence on streets of Johannesburg as foreigners are forced to hide in police stations
Earthworms rain down from skies over Norway, puzzling scientists
18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'
£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...
£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...
£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...
£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...