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Directly Reprogramming Nerve Cells in the Brain

By BiotechDaily International staff writers
Posted on 04 Apr 2013
Image: Reprogrammed nerve cell (Photo courtesy of Malin Parmar).
Image: Reprogrammed nerve cell (Photo courtesy of Malin Parmar).
Generating new cells in the body to cure disease, the purview of cell therapy, has taken another significant step in the development toward new treatments. New Swedish research demonstrated that it is possible to reprogram other cells to become nerve cells, directly in the brain.

Two years ago, researchers in Lund University (Sweden) were the first in the world to reprogram fibroblasts to dopamine-producing nerve cells, without going through the stem cell stage. The scientists are now going further and shown that it is possible to reprogram both skin cells and support cells directly to nerve cells, in place in the brain.

“The findings are the first important evidence that it is possible to reprogram other cells to become nerve cells inside the brain,” said Dr. Malin Parmar, research group leader and reader in neurobiology at Lund.

The researchers employed genes designed to be switched on or off using a drug. The genes were inserted into two types of human cells, glia cells and fibroblasts, support cells that are naturally present in the brain. Once the researchers had transplanted the cells into the brains of rats, the genes were triggered using a drug in the animals’ drinking water. The cells then began their conversion into nerve cells.

In other research with lab mice, where similar genes were injected into the mice’s brains, the investigators also were able to reprogram the mice’s own glia cells to become nerve cells. “The research findings have the potential to open the way for alternatives to cell transplants in the future, which would remove previous obstacles to research, such as the difficulty of getting the brain to accept foreign cells, and the risk of tumor development,” said Dr. Parmar.

The new technique of direct reprogramming in the brain could create new ways to more successfully replace dying brain cells in disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. “We are now developing the technique so that it can be used to create new nerve cells that replace the function of damaged cells. Being able to carry out the reprogramming in vivo makes it possible to imagine a future in which we form new cells directly in the human brain, without taking a detour via cell cultures and transplants,” concluded Dr. Parmar.

The study’s findings were published March 26, 2012, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS).

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