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A team of scientists managed to convert skin cells directly into brain cells, a recent study shows, and what is particularly striking about this accomplishment is the fact that the skin cells were not returned to a stem cell stage first. This direct conversion offers many benefits, one of which being the fact that by not returning to a stem cell, researchers avoided the risk of producing other type of cells than what they had desired.
Another unique trait of the study is that the team of researchers included in the study succeeded in converting the skin cells into a particular type of brain cell as opposed to a different range of cells.
The study was published in the journal Neuron by the research team from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. In the paper, they report using a special combination of micro RNA (ribonucleic acid)and transcription factors so as to get the skin cells to reprogram into medium spiny neurons (the specific type of brain cell in question).
These medium spiny neuron produced by the team of researchers were then injected into the brains of mice and survived for a minimum of 6 months after the injection. Scientists believe that this is a breakthrough, seeing that such neurons are essential for movement control. They are the main type of brain cell affected in Huntington’s disease.
Dr. Andrew S. Yoo, senior author of the paper and assistant professor of developmental biology at WUSTL said that the cells injected into the mice did more than survive. According to him, the cells began displaying properties similar to native cells.
“These cells are known to extend projections into certain brain regions. And we found the human transplanted cells also connected to these distant targets in the mouse brain. That is a landmark point about this paper.”
The research team believes their findings show great promise in regenerative medicine, since they can use the patient’s own cells in the regenerative process. Consequently, patients and doctors could simply avoid the matter of immune rejection.
Dr. Yoo and his colleagues cultured skin cells in an environment especially created to mimic that of brain cells. They then exposed these cells to two small RNA molecules, called miR-9 and miR-124, which caused the skin cells to transform into brain cells. The team still hasn’t worked out the mechanism, they believe that these two RNA molecules instruct the cell’s tightly wrapped DNA to be opened up, so that the genes particular to brain cells’ development can express.