US researchers have turned skin cells directly into nerve cells in what has been described as a “huge leap forward” for regenerative medicine.
Using mouse skin cells, the team from Stanford University School of Medicine in California used just three genes to make the identity switch, which was achieved without an in-between stem cell stage.
Previously, normal cells have been coaxed into changing function by first turning the clock back on their development so they become “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPS cells).
These have similar properties to stem cells taken from embryos, giving them the potential to become any kind of body tissue. The new study went a step further by transforming the mouse cells straight into functional neurons and by-passing the stem cell process.
The researchers said the breakthrough could “revolutionise the future of human stem cell therapy”, and team leader Dr Marius Wernig said: “We actively and directly induced one cell type to become a completely different cell type. These are fully functional neurons. They can do all the principal things that neurons in the brain do.”
The scientists, whose results are published online in the journal Nature, now hope to duplicate the feat with human cells.
Copyright Press Association 2010