Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Functional nerve cells from skin cells


A new method of generating mature nerve cells from skin cells could greatly enhance understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, and could accelerate the development of new drugs and stem cell-based regenerative medicine.

The nerve cells generated by this new method show the same functional characteristics as the mature cells found in the body, making them much better models for the study of age-related diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and for the testing of new drugs.

These are mature nerve cells generated from human cells using enhanced transcription factors.

Credit: Fahad Ali

Eventually, the technique could also be used to generate mature nerve cells for transplantation into patients with a range of neurodegenerative diseases.

By studying how nerves form in developing tadpoles, researchers from the University of Cambridge were able to identify ways to speed up the cellular processes by which human nerve cells mature. The findings are reported in the May 27th edition of the journal Development.

Stem cells are our master cells, which can develop into almost any cell type within the body. Within a stem cell, there are mechanisms that tell it when to divide, and when to stop dividing and transform into another cell type, a process known as cell differentiation. Several years ago, researchers determined that a group of proteins known as transcription factors, which are found in many tissues throughout the body, regulate both mechanisms.

More recently, it was found that by adding these proteins to skin cells, they can be reprogrammed to form other cell types, including nerve cells. These cells are known as induced neurons, or iN cells. However, this method generates a low number of cells, and those that are produced are not fully functional, which is a requirement in order to be useful models of disease: for example, cortical neurons for stroke, or motor neurons for motor neuron disease.

In addition, for age-related diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, both of which affect millions worldwide, mature nerve cells which show the same characteristics as those found in the body are crucial in order to enhance understanding of the disease and ultimately determine the best way to treat it.

"When you reprogramme cells, you're essentially converting them from one form to another but often the cells you end up with look like they come from embryos rather than looking and acting like more mature adult cells," said Dr Anna Philpott of the Department of Oncology, who led the research. "In order to increase our understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's, we need to be able to work with cells that look and behave like those you would see in older individuals who have developed the disease, so producing more 'adult' cells after reprogramming is really important."

By manipulating the signals which transcription factors send to the cells, Dr Philpott and her collaborators were able to promote cell differentiation and maturation, even in the presence of conflicting signals that were directing the cell to continue dividing.

When cells are dividing, transcription factors are modified by the addition of phosphate molecules, a process known as phosphorylation, but this can limit how well cells can convert to mature nerves. However, by engineering proteins which cannot be modified by phosphate and adding them to human cells, the researchers found they could produce nerve cells that were significantly more mature, and therefore more useful as models for disease such as Alzheimer's.

Additionally, very similar protein control mechanisms are at work to mature important cells in other tissues such as pancreatic islets, the cell type that fails to function effectively in type 2 diabetes. As well as making more mature nerves, Dr Philpott's lab is now using similar methods to improve the function of insulin-producing pancreas cells for future therapeutic applications.

"We've found that not only do you have to think about how you start the process of cell differentiation in stem cells, but you also have to think about what you need to do to make differentiation complete - we can learn a lot from how cells in developing embryos manage this," said Dr Philpott.


This research was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Rosetrees Trust.

For more information, contact:
Sarah Collins
Office of Communications, University of Cambridge
Tel: +44 (0)1223 332300 Mob: +44 (0)7525 337458

Notes to editors:

The paper, "The phosphorylation status of Ascl1 is a key determinant of neuronal differentiation and maturation in vivo and in vitro." is published in the May 27th edition of the journal Development.

The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms.

Sarah Collins | Eurek Alert!

Further reports about: Alzheimer's Parkinson's diseases drugs nerves neurons proteins skin transcription

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Two decades of training students and experts in tracking infectious disease
27.11.2015 | Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften Hamburg

nachricht Increased carbon dioxide enhances plankton growth, opposite of what was expected
27.11.2015 | Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s

Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...

Im Focus: Innovative Photovoltaics – from the Lab to the Façade

Fraunhofer ISE Demonstrates New Cell and Module Technologies on its Outer Building Façade

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

Im Focus: Laser process simulation available as app for first time

In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.

Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...

Im Focus: Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism

Heidelberg physicists use ultracold atoms to imitate the behaviour of electrons in a solid

Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Fraunhofer’s Urban Futures Conference: 2 days in the city of the future

25.11.2015 | Event News

Gluten oder nicht Gluten? Überempfindlichkeit auf Weizen kann unterschiedliche Ursachen haben

17.11.2015 | Event News

Art Collection Deutsche Börse zeigt Ausstellung „Traces of Disorder“

21.10.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Siemens to supply 126 megawatts to onshore wind power plants in Scotland

27.11.2015 | Press release

Two decades of training students and experts in tracking infectious disease

27.11.2015 | Life Sciences

Coming to a monitor near you: A defect-free, molecule-thick film

27.11.2015 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>