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Transforming human skin cells into motor neurons.

ST. LOUIS, Mo., September 7, 2017 -- Scientists here have discovered a new way to convert human skin cells directly into motor neurons. The technique, developed at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, could help researchers better understand diseases of motor neurons, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Scientists working to develop new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases have been stymied by the inability to grow human motor neurons in the lab.

Motor neurons drive muscle contractions, and their damage underlies devastating diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and spinal muscular atrophy, both of which ultimately lead to paralysis and early death.

The new technique makes it possible to study motor neurons of the human central nervous system in the lab.

Unlike commonly studied mouse motor neurons, human motor neurons growing in the lab would be a new tool since researchers can't take samples of these neurons from living people but can easily take skin samples.

Avoiding the stem cell phase eliminates ethical concerns raised when producing what are called pluripotent stem cells, which are similar to embryonic stem cells in their ability to become all adult cell types.

And avoiding a stem cell state allows the resulting motor neurons to retain the age of the original skin cells and, therefore, the age of the patient.

Maintaining the chronological age of these cells is vital when studying neurodegenerative diseases that develop in people at different ages and worsen over decades.

In this study, the researchers only used skin cells from healthy adults ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s.

The research revealed how small RNA molecules can work with other cell signals called transcription factors to generate specific types of neurons, in this case motor neurons.

In the future, the researchers would like to study skin cells from patients with disorders of motor neurons.

The conversion process should model late-onset aspects of the disease using neurons derived from patients with the condition."

Going back through a pluripotent stem cell phase is a bit like demolishing a house and building a new one from the ground up. What the researchers are doing is more like renovation.

They change the interior but leave the original structure, which retains the characteristics of the aging adult neurons that are being studied.

The ability of scientists to convert human skin cells into other cell types, such as neurons, has the potential to enhance understanding of disease and lead to finding new ways to heal damaged tissues and organs, a field called regenerative medicine.

To convert skin cells into motor neurons, the researchers exposed the skin cells to molecular signals that are usually present at high levels in the brain.

The past work of Andrew Yoo showed that exposure to two short snippets of RNA turned human skin cells into neurons.

These two microRNAs--called miR-9 and miR-124--are involved with repackaging the genetic instructions of the cell.

Citation: Andrew S. Yoo et al., "MicroRNAs Induce a Permissive Chromatin Environment that Enables Neuronal Subtype-Specific Reprogramming of Adult Human Fibroblasts," Cell Stem Cell, September 2017 DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2017.08.002


Contact: Andrew Yoo,
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Title Annotation:Advanced Stem Cell Technology
Publication:Stem Cell Business News
Date:Sep 18, 2017
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