Skin cells called fibroblasts can be transformed into neurons quickly and efficiently with just a few genetic tweaks, according to new research. The surprisingly simple conversion, which doesn’t require the cells to be returned to an embryonic state, suggests that differentiated adult cells are much more flexible than previously thought.
Cellular transformation: A cocktail of three genes can transform skin cells into neurons (shown here in red).
Credit: Thomas Vierbuchen
If the research, published in the journal Nature yesterday, can be repeated in human cells, it would provide an easier method for generating replacement neurons from individual patients. Brain cells derived from a skin graft would be genetically identical to the patient and therefore remove the risk of immune rejection–such an approach might one day be used to treat Parkinson’s or other neurodegenerative diseases.
“It’s almost scary to see how flexible these cell fates are,” says Marius Wernig, a biologist at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford, who led the research. “You just need a few factors, and within four to five days you see signs of neuronal properties in these cells.”