Scientists Successfully Convert Adult Skin Cells into Brain Cells

Swedish scientists report that they have successfully converted mature skin cells into brain cells.  The achievement may lead to new treatments for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, while avoiding the moral dilemmas typically associated with stem cell research.

Lund University researchers essentially reprogrammed the skin cells by activating three genes in the cells that are usually present when brain cells are formed in the fetus.  The cells, called fibroblasts, were originally connective tissue cells that the researchers turned into dopamine brain cells.

“We didn’t really believe this would work. To begin with it was mostly just an interesting experiment to try. However, we soon saw that the cells were surprisingly receptive to instructions,” said Malin Parmar, lead author of the study.

Dopamine brain cells are the same kind of cells that die in people with Parkinson’s disease, which is a brain disorder that causes tremors and eventually a debilitating loss of coordination.

With this new discovery, the researchers hope to open up new possibilities for treatment for Parkinson’s and possibly other neurodegenerative diseases by turning a patient’s own skin cells into brain cells.

“This is the big idea in the long run. We hope to be able to do a biopsy on a patient, make dopamine cells, for example, and then transplant them as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease,” said Parmar.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.