Crucial advance in stem cell research
Scientists at The University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research
have succeeded in converting human skin cells directly into immature
brain cells (or neural precursor cells).
The team, assisted by
funding from the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand, the Auckland
Medical Research Foundation, and the Maurice and Phyllis Paykel Trust ,
has led the world in developing a fast and efficient means of
accomplishing this without having to go through the intermediate stage
of conversion to embryonic stem cells.
“This is an advance of
huge significance to stem cell research on a global level,” says
Principal Investigator, Associate Professor Bronwen Connor, who is head
of the Neural Repair and Neurogenesis Laboratory at the University. “It
has the potential to lead to a new understanding of neurodegenerative
diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“We are all very excited about it.”
key advantage of this research is that it enables researchers to take
skin cells from patients with genetically-linked neurological diseases
and use these to create brain cells which will be affected by the
“This helps in gaining understanding of the mechanisms
causing the disease. It will allow us to test potential treatments on
actual brain tissue”, says Associate Professor Connor. “It also takes us
further towards the possibility of replacing damaged brain cells.”
teams in top universities in the United States and other parts of the
world are also investigating ways of converting skin cells to brain
cells, the work of The University of Auckland team is unique.
it is the only group to have reprogrammed adult human skin cells. Other
groups using this technique are working with cells taken from animals’
Second, the Auckland team is using just two genes for the
process of reprogramming from skin cells to neural precursor cells.
Other international groups are using between five and 11 genes.
effect of her team’s methods, says Associate Professor Connor, is to
speed up the process. The conversion from skin cells to embryonic stem
cells and then to neural precursor cells takes four months. If the skin
cells are converted directly to neural precursors, this takes one and a
half months or 20 days, depending on the type of technology used. The
system developed by her team is also very efficient, resulting in a high
conversion rate from one cell type to another.
The direct conversion also overcomes a problem of tumour formation which can arise when embryonic stem cells are used.
Professor Connor and her team have for several years been looking at
the possibility of using embryonic stem cells to replace brain cells
injured through accident or disease. However, as she explains, the very
reason for using embryonic stem cells – which is their capacity for
making any type of cell in the human body - also brings a problem that
has to be overcome before cell replacement can be considered.
creating brain cells from embryonic stem cells you have to make sure
that all of them are converted. Otherwise the ones that remain can
convert to other types of cells, typically cancer cells.”
elimination of this risk through direct conversion from skin cells to
neural precursor cells therefore gives a strong boost to the prospect of
cell replacement therapy in the future.
The other members of Dr
Connor’s team are Dr Christof Maucksch, a postdoctoral fellow at The
University of Auckland, and Dr Mirrella Dottori from the University of
The paper will be published in the Journal of Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.
Wednesday, 12 September 2012