Apologies for the lack of substance lately, dear galleons- I promise to get back on a more normal schedule of posting (i.e. more sex and science).
As you are well aware, I have a soft spot for genetics research. Beyond the fact that it is utterly fascinating, I think it can be traced back to a good friend of mine from TASP who wanted to be a geneticist (and awakened my inner genetics geek).
Which doesn’t matter, really. But we are going to be talking about genetics today, so… huzzah?
Over at Lund University in Sweden, a group has successfully created nerve cells from human skin cells. Which isn’t exactly a new development- stem cell researchers have been turning skin cells into pluripotent stem (IPS) cells, which they’ve proceeded to convert to things like nerve cells, for some time. What’s unique about this latest research is that the Swedish group never created IPS cells. Instead, they managed to reprogram a mature skin cell directly into a nerve cell.
Which is all kinds of cool.
Beyond my geek squee (see this and this), there are reasons this is important. First (and probably rather obviously), this cuts out the use of any form of stem cell in the cell reprogramming game. Using mature cells cuts out the ethical dilemmas posed by research using embryonic stem cells. But skipping that stem cell stage may have an additional (less well-known) benefit: it could prevent the risk of tumors forming at the transplant site. Certain stem cells have the annoying habit of continuing to divide and form tumors after transplantation. This has been a major hindrance to stem cell research, one which could vanish with this new method of cell transmutation.
So, how did our researchers go about morphing skin cells into nerve cells? What they actually did was go in and activate a certain gene in connective tissue cells (fibroblasts). Doing this was enough to switch the skin tissue cells over to certain types of nerve cells.
But wait, there’s more!
By activating two more genes within the skin cells, the research team actually managed to change those fibroblasts into brain cells. Specifically dopamine brain cells, the type of cell which dies in Parkinson’s disease. Naturally, that means this process could prove to be instrumental in creating transplantable replacement dopamine cells from a patient’s existing skin cells (it is presumed that specifically designed cells originating from the patient would be better accepted by the body’s immune system than cells from donor tissue). Scientists also expect brain cells created in this manner could be used as disease models in research on various neurodegenerative diseases.
“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,” says Malin Parmar. Parmar is continuing the research, hoping to develop more types of brain cells using this new method.
While we await further study on how these new cells survive and function within the brain, it’s still an incredible breakthrough. The more we learn about the specifics of the genetic code, the more we are able to do with it and the more impressive research like this is going to get.
Of course, the greater the genetic game, the greater the ethical dilemmas. And the greater the risks. I mean, we all know how this goes. It starts out all fine and sciencey, and the next thing you know, this is happening.