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Study: New process converts skin cells into brain cells

Scientists at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and Stanford University have mastered a technique that adapts skin cells to brain cells. They are able to convert these normal skin cells into the type of brain cells that are often destroyed in patients with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and other myelin disorders.

"Its 'cellular alchemy,'" explained Paul Tesar, Ph.D, assistant professor of genetics and genome sciences at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and senior author of the study in a statement. "We are taking a readily accessible and abundant cell and completely switching its identity to become a highly valuable cell for therapy."

If researchers are successful this process could have major benefits to those with human myelin disorders. A myelin disease can impact nerve signal transmission to the brain and spinal chord leading to cognitive, motor and sensory problems. If the neuron does not have myelin to insulate it, the signals to other parts of the body through nerve cell axons lose their pressure and do not go as far as they are supposed to.

"The myelin repair field has been hampered by an inability to rapidly generate safe and effective sources of functional oligodendrocytes," said co-author and myelin expert Robert Miller, Ph.D, professor of neurosciences at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and the university's vice president for research in a statement. "The new technique may overcome all of these issues by providing a rapid and streamlined way to directly generate functional myelin producing cells."

This study used mouse cells, which makes the next step very important. In the following stages of research, the scientists need to demonstrate that they can safely do the same thing with human cells. They will first attempt to populate human cells in a laboratory.

Earlier studies that used rodent cells showed that they could create oligodendrocyte precursor cells from using transplanted embryonic stem cells and from human fetal brain tissue to create myelin covers around the neurons.

"Unfortunately, the availability of human fetal tissue is extremely limited, and the creation of OPCs from embryonic stem cells is slow and tedious," said the study's senior author, Marius Wernig, MD, assistant professor of pathology and a member of Stanford's Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in a statement. "It appeared we wouldn't be able to create enough human OPCs for widespread therapeutic use, so we began to wonder if we could create them directly from skin cells."

This discovery appeared Sunday in the journal Nature Biotechnology

"The progression of stem cell biology is providing opportunities for clinical translation that a decade ago would not have been possible," said Stanton Gerson, MD, director of the National Center for Regenerative Medicine in a statement. "It is a real breakthrough."

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