Scientists have discovered a way of converting skin cells directly into neural precursor cells - the cells that develop into the three main components of the brain and nervous system.
Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine are celebrating a new medical breakthrough - a process similar to using stem cells to create new cells in the body. Except this time, scientists have transformed skin cells directly into neural precursor brain cells, skipping the ‘middle stem cell’ stage in the process.
The American research team infected the skin cells of mice with a virus in order to mimic neural precursor cells. Scientists were able to successfully take these skin cells and reprogramme them directly into brain cells without passing through the stem cell stage.
It was found that in just three weeks, one in ten of the skin cells had started to look and act like working neural precursors.
To confirm this result, researchers injected the new neural cells into the brains of newborn mice, which were bred to lack ability to make the myelin sheath, an insulating layer that surrounds the nerve fibres and allows impulses to transmit into the nerve cells.
After ten weeks, these new cells had transformed into oligodendrocytes, a neural precursor brain cell that enables the nerve fibres to connect neurons together and allow signals to be transmitted.
"We've shown the cells can integrate into a mouse brain and produce a missing protein important for the conduction of electrical signal by the neurons. This is important because the mouse model we used mimics that of a human genetic brain disease," says the author of the study, Dr Marius Wernig.
"We are thrilled about the prospects for potential medical use of these cells."
These findings follow an earlier study that transformed mouse and human skin cells into functional neurons.
Scientists are hoping that this breakthrough could pave the way for tests using embryonic skin cells from humans as it can provide huge promise to treating a range of conditions, such as strokes and blindness to name a few.
However, this is still a long way off because of the ethical concerns around the human embryonic stem cell system.