Scientists Transform Skin Cells of Mice into Neurons

I’ve touted the remarkable medical potential of stem cells before, but I never imagined that their unique abilities could be applied to fully-developed cells too. According to a report from the BBC, that’s exactly what researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California accomplished (you could read the study’s paper in Nature)

The main advantage of stem cells is that they can turn into any other type of specialized cell, proceeding to multiply and function accordingly. Hence their importance in a range of medical treatments in which they could repair damaged tissue or organs (several studies are underway to utilize them in treating strokeheart disease, and some forms of blindness).
 
However, there are some cons as well. Aside from well-known ethical concerns about using embryonic stem cells (the most preferred and effective kind), patients who receive any stem cell tissue would need to take immunosuppressant drugs regularly to prevent their own bodies from attacking it, since it’s biologically foreign. As vast as their benefits may be, there are still many challenges before they could be put to widespread use.
 
For this reason, scientists have been searching for other ways to regenerate loss or damaged tissue.
 
An alternative method has been to take skin cells and reprogram them into “induced” stem cells. These could be made from a patient’s own cells and then turned into the cell type required, however, the process results in cancer-causing genes being activated.
 
The research group, at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, is looking at another option – converting a person’s own skin cells into specialist cells, without creating “induced” stem cells. It has already transformed skin cells directly into neurons.
 
This study created “neural precursor” cells, which can develop into three types of brain cell: neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes.
 
These precursor cells have the advantage that, once created, they can be grown in a laboratory into very large numbers. This could be critical if the cells were to be used in any therapy.
 
Brain cells and skin cells contain the same genetic information; however, the genetic code is interpreted differently in each. This is controlled by “transcription factors”.
 
The scientists used a virus to infect skin cells with three transcription factors known to be at high levels in neural precursor cells.
 
After three weeks about one in 10 of the cells became neural precursor cells.
 
It’s remarkable to think that our bodies might hold the key to treating a range of afflictions. Imagine suffering from once-irreparable damage to your heart or brain, only to be cured by a few alterations to your own skin sample. I’m sure it’ll be more complex than that, but it’s still a huge advancement, and far beyond what I’d expect us to be capable of.
 
Given that this impressive feat has only been done on mice, it’ll probably be a while until we see any medical application of that sort. It’s not yet known if this replicable in humans, much less if it’s safe and effective. But as always, I’ll be waiting with cautious optimism, marveled by the achievements of human ingenuity.
 

The Immortal Jellyfish

Turritopsis nutricula probably isn’t well known. This tiny, coin-sized little jellyfish would hardly attract much notice or concern even without it’s ungraceful scientific name. This makes it all the more remarkable to consider that it may provide groundbreaking answers to regenerative medicine, if not to our concerns about mortality itself:  it  is thus far the only known animal on the planet capable of reverting back to youth.

Once again, the beauty of life has thoroughly seized me. Just looking at this gorgeous little creature makes me a tad sentimental, if I may be bold to admit:

Recall that it's only the size of a dime, but it may hold some game-changing answers as far as human life and well-being are concerned.

I can’t stress enough how exciting this news is. While this fascinating and unique ability has been known for at least two decades, interest has been renewed given the recent advancements in stem cell research, the crucial element in regenerative and anti-aging efforts (it also helps that the jellyfish’s population has boomed, giving itself ample attention). If the properties that render this humble little creature immortal could be singled-out, harness, or duplicated, the ramifications would obviously be vast, to say the least.

A relatively concise but well-written article on the subject could be found here . It’s a few months old, but there’s been no further update as far as I know.

While I’m tempted to delve into the greater philosophical, social, and ethical consequences of all this, I think I’ll leave that for another post (although don’t hesitate to reflect on it yourself of course). As anxious as I am about this news, I have no delusions about the possibility of this being a dead end, or of the result advancements in biotechnology being corrupting in some way. But such concerns are of course only natural, and healthy. This should in no way interfere with what I believer is a natural response to such an amazing and potentially groundbreaking discovery. There is a lot left to glean and understand, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes and ears on this one.

While I’m at it, I might as well share this lighthearted take on it too.