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Common Mouse Cell Type Converted to Neurons

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Donna O’Donnell Figurski

 

newsboy-thCommon Mouse Cell Type Converted to Neurons

You’ve probably heard of the promising future of cell therapy. The excitement comes from the fact that injuries might be treated by implanting fresh, healthy cells. Stem cells, which can mature to many different cell types, have been discovered in almost every organ in the body. They hold enormous potential for helping to heal injured organs. Already, scientists are devising methods to add new muscle to damaged hearts and to add insulin-producing cells to the body to cure Type I diabetes. The brain also has stem cells, and much of the natural recovery from brain injury is due to stem cells, which rebuild the damaged part of the brain. The beauty of stem cells from the brain is that they can develop into healthy neurons and replace damaged circuits. But the natural healing of the brain is often insufficient. Scientists have been looking for ways to make more stem cells and to activate them so that implanting them is practical and they can result in more healing.scientist

I want to tell you about exciting basic research on cell therapy that may make possible or speed up the development of new therapies for brain injury. Scientists at Duke University have found a way to make neurons from common mouse cells, called “fibroblasts,” without resorting to stem cells. The scientists made a modified protein and put it into fibroblasts. The modified protein found and activated the master regulator genes needed to turn on the genes for the cell to become a neuron.

In the past, a cell’s change into a neuron required that extra copies of the master regulator genes be introduced into the cell. The cell maintained its neuron-like properties only if the extra activators were present. If the extra copies were lost, the cell reverted to its original form. Scientists said that the neurons were “unstable.” Still, it was a breakthrough. To help stabilize the neurons, extra copies of genes for the master regulators were added to its chromosomes. The neurons still weren’t perfectly stable, and the presence of extra copies in the chromosomes was unnatural.

In the new method, activation of the neuron genes is natural. The neurons are “stable,” even when the modified activator protein is gone. As far as the scientists can tell, the neurons formed this way appear to be like natural neurons.

MouseOf course, these studies need to be done with human cells. But, because the mouse is similar enough to humans genetically, new neurons are likely to be made from human cells. If so, cell therapy to treat brain injury will become common in the foreseeable future. One benefit is that therapy can be personalized. It’s not practical to get your neurons from a brain biopsy, but your easy-to-get fibroblasts can be converted to neurons. Those neurons can then be tested with therapeutic drugs to see what works best with your genetic background. Also, the implanted cells would not be rejected by your body (prevention of rejection is the reason for immunosuppressive drugs today) because the neurons would be made from cells of your own body. (Full story)

 

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