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12th March 2012

A viable alternative to stem cells?

Scientists convert human skin cells into brain cells
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As one of the most widely publicised areas of modern science, stem cells are commonly regarded as the future of medicine. However, they aren’t without their drawbacks. Embryonic stem cells are shrouded in ethical concern and the process of modifying other kinds of stem cells can run the risk of causing cancer.

More recent research has brought hope to solving such problems. Scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine in California have developed a method that converts skin cells directly into brain cells, without the need for stem cells at all, effectively cutting out the middleman.

In the laboratory skin cells were treated with a virus, which was modified to ‘infect’ them with agents that function to convert the skin cells into precursors to brain cells. These cells can specialise into the three types of brain cell: neurons, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes. After laboratory research was carried out, the converted cells were injected into the brains of mice. These mice were bred to lack the protein myelin, which is important in aiding the transmission of messages in the brain. 10 weeks later, the precursor cells had specialised into oligodendrocytes, which made the myelin that the mice lacked. This showed the scientists that the cells they had made could function in animals, which is a crucial step in the development of such treatments.

The direct conversion of one cell type to another has many practical advantages over stem cells. These precursor cells can be grown in large numbers and have a longer ‘shelf life’ than stem cells, which is vital if they were to be used in therapy. Although this research has lots of potential in human cell-based therapies, more studies are being carried out to assay the safety and long-term success of such therapy.

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