Scientists have turned skin into brain and beating heart cells, using a technique similar to the astonishing powers of regeneration of animals like salamanders.
They said their revolutionary new method was a significant step towards the day when coronary and Alzheimer’s patients can be treated with their own reprogrammed tissue.
Human skin cells were turned into stem cells – which can form any kind of tissue in the body – using a cocktail of chemicals. Another mix of chemicals was then used to transform them into heart cells, according to a study reported in the journal Science.
More than 97 per cent of the cells start beating and when they were transplanted into a mouse’s heart, they developed into healthy-looking heart tissue.
In a separate study, reported in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the scientists turned mouse skin into brain stem cells using a similar technique.
Dr Sheng Ding, of the San Francisco-based Gladstone Institutes research centre, who led the study, said: “This method brings us closer to being able to generate new cells at the site of injury in patients.
“Our hope is to one day treat diseases like heart failure or Parkinson's disease with drugs that help the heart and brain regenerate damaged areas from their own existing tissue cells.
“This process is much closer to the natural regeneration that happens in animals like newts and salamanders, which has long fascinated us.”
Previously, scientists had managed to reprogram cells but only by adding external genes to the cells.
Genetic engineering of human cells remains controversial and the Gladstone researchers believe their method is a more efficient and reliable method of creating new cells to replace damaged tissue.
“The ultimate goal in treating heart failure is a robust, reliable way for the heart to create new muscle cells,” said Dr Deepak Srivastava, a co- author of the Science paper.
“Reprogramming a patient's own cells could provide the safest and most efficient way to regenerate dying or diseased heart muscle.”
In the brain cell study, neural stem cells made from mouse skin transformed into the three main types of brain cell, neurons, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, when transplanted into mice.
Dr Yadong Huang, another of the researchers, said: “With their improved safety, these neural stem cells could one day be used for cell replacement therapy in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
“In the future, we could even imagine treating patients with a drug cocktail that acts on the brain or spinal cord, rejuvenating cells in the brain in real time.”
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