The research field of cell therapy, which aims to produce new cells in the body to cure diseases, has taken another important step in the development of new treatments. A recent report by researchers at Lund University shows that it is possible to reprogram other cells to nerve cells, directly into the brain.
Two years ago, researchers in Lund were first in the world to reprogram human skin cells, called fibroblasts, into dopamine-producing nerve cells - without the detour via the stem cell stage. The research team's latest breakthrough advances positions further and shows that it is possible to reprogram both skin cells and support cells directly into neurons, in place in the brain.
The findings are the first significant evidence that it is possible to reprogram other cells to nerve cells inside the brain, says Malin Parmar (pictured), research director and associate professor of neurobiology.
Scientists use genes designed so that they can be activated or deactivated with the help of a drug. The genes are inserted into two different types of human cells: fibroblasts and glial cells (glial cells are found naturally in the brain). After researchers transplanted cells in the brain of rats, genes were activated by a drug placed in the animal's drinking water. Here begins the cells transformation into neurons.
In a separate experiment on mice in which similar genes were injected into a mouse brain, the research team was also able to reprogram the mice's own glial cells to become neurons.
The discovery has the potential to eventually pave the way for an alternative to transplantation of cells, which would remove previous barriers to research, such as the difficulty of getting the brain to accept foreign cells, and the risk of tumor formation, says Olof Torper, graduate student and first author of the study.
Overall, this opens the new technology - direct reprogramming of the brain – to new possibilities for the future to more effectively replace dying brain cells in diseases such as Parkinson's.
We are now developing the technology so that it can be used to create new neurons to replace the function of damaged cells. To perform reprogramming in vivo means that one can imagine a future where we form new cells directly on site in the human brain, without taking a detour via cell culture and transplantation, said Malin Parmar.
Illustration: Lund University.
Lund University News Release (03/26/13)
Science Daily (03/26/13)
Abstract (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; (03/25/13))