UCSF scientist transforms skins cells into brain cells

Author:  Neel Patel
Institution:  Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Date:  September 2011

A recent breakthrough at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of California, San Francisco has the potential to radically change the way doctors treat neurodegenerative diseases. Sheng Ding and his lab were able to successfully convert human skin cells into functional brain cells. Published in Cell Stem Cell, the results of the study could potentially wipe out illnesses like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's disease.

"Dr. Ding's latest research offers new hope for the process of developing medications for these diseases," said Lennart Mucke, director of neurological research at Gladstone. "There is also the possibility of cell-replacement therapy to reduce the trauma of millions of people affected by these devastating and irreversible conditions."

Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they are capable of maturing into any type of cell in the body. Many in the scientific community believe that these cells are critical to the future of regenerative medicine, in which damaged organs and tissues can be easily repaired or replaced.

Ding's research was an extension of the work undertaken by another Gladstone scientist, Shinya Yamakana, who in 2006 discovered a method of turning adult skin cells into embryonic cells. Yamakana was able to derive stem cells without having to destroy embryos. Embryonic stem cell processing remains heavily controversial.

The immediate consequences of this breakthrough are expected to yield more insight into how neurodegenerative diseases work.

"Modeling many human neurodegenerative disorders is difficult in animal models," said Rajesh Ambasudhan, lead author of the study. "Moreover, unlike skin or blood, brain cells cannot be readily taken out from a live patient. This new technology might help to overcome such a hurdle to study many such disorders in a patient-specific way."

"Through this method, there is less likelihood of tumor formation or immune rejection after transplantation," Ambasudhan explained. "However, there are more hurdles to overcome before this process is safer and viable for clinical practice."