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.
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:
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. http://www.mrc.ac.uk
Sarah Collins | Eurek Alert!
A new potential biomarker for cancer imaging
05.02.2016 | Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM)
NIH researchers identify striking genomic signature shared by 5 types of cancer
05.02.2016 | NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute
Automobiles increase the mobility of their users. However, their maneuverability is pushed to the limit by cramped inner city conditions. Those who need to...
Advance in biomedical imaging: The University of Würzburg's Biocenter has enhanced fluorescence microscopy to label and visualise up to nine different cell structures simultaneously.
Fluorescence microscopy allows researchers to visualise biomolecules in cells. They label the molecules using fluorescent probes, excite them with light and...
NASA's follow-on to the successful ICESat mission will employ a never-before-flown technique for determining the topography of ice sheets and the thickness of sea ice, but that won't be the only first for this mission.
Slated for launch in 2018, NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) also will carry a 3-D printed part made of polyetherketoneketone (PEKK),...
In the last decades, sea level has been rising continuously – about 3.3 mm per year. For reef islands such as the Maldives or the Marshall Islands a sinister picture is being painted evoking the demise of the island states and their cultures. Are the effects of sea-level rise already noticeable on reef islands? Scientists from the ZMT have now answered this question for the Takuu Atoll, a group of Pacific islands, located northeast of Papua New Guinea.
In the last decades, sea level has been rising continuously – about 3.3 mm per year. For reef islands such as the Maldives or the Marshall Islands a sinister...
The ‘Internet of Things’ is growing rapidly. Mobile phones, washing machines and the milk bottle in the fridge: the idea is that minicomputers connected to these will be able to process information, receive and send data. This requires electrical power. Transistors that are capable of switching information with a single electron use far less power than field effect transistors that are commonly used in computers. However, these innovative electronic switches do not yet work at room temperature. Scientists working on the new EU research project ‘Ions4Set’ intend to change this. The program will be launched on February 1. It is coordinated by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR).
“Billions of tiny computers will in future communicate with each other via the Internet or locally. Yet power consumption currently remains a great obstacle”,...
02.02.2016 | Event News
26.01.2016 | Event News
26.01.2016 | Event News
05.02.2016 | Life Sciences
05.02.2016 | Materials Sciences
05.02.2016 | Physics and Astronomy