Scientists Turn Skin Cells into Brain Cells, Using Alzheimers Patients

By Annalee Newitz on at

You are looking at freshly made human neurons, or brain cells. But they used to be common skin cells. And their existence could change how we treat Alzheimers.

Using a special mix of small molecules, two groups of scientists in China have successfully turned human skin cells into neurons. They hope that their technique could one day help rejuvenate failing tissues in the brains of Alzheimers patients.

The two teams in China focused on strategies for converting skin cells to neurons, with one group focusing on skin cells from mice and the other on humans. Results of their work are published in two papers today from the journal Cell Stem Cell. The team working on human cells drew their samples from Alzheimers patients, because one possible end goal of this research would be to produce working brain cells that could supplement failing tissues in the brains of people with dementia.

If someone became ill with Alzheimers, doctors might one day use this technique to take a small skin sample and generate new, healthy brain tissue for them. Because the tissues had been made from the patient’s own body, there would be no risk of rejection.

The technique worked in both mice and humans, though we are very far from converting this breakthrough into a working therapy for Alzheimers. Still, the results are promising, especially because they don’t require expensive and difficult genetic engineering techniques.

Peking University cell biologist Hongkui Deng, who worked on the mouse study, said in a release:

The small molecules that are used in this chemical approach are cell permeable; cost-effective; and easy to synthesize, preserve, and standardize; and their effects can be reversible. In addition, the use of small molecules can be fine-tuned by adjusting their concentrations and duration, and the approach bypasses the technical challenges and safety concerns of genetic manipulations, which may be promising in their future applications.

Even more exciting is the possibility that the small molecule mixture could be tweaked to induce skin cells to turn into very specific kinds of neurons.

Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences researcher Jian Zhao worked on the human study. She said:

It should be possible to generate different subtypes of neurons with a similar chemical approach but using slightly modified chemical cocktails. It also needs to be explored whether functional neurons could be induced by chemical cocktails in living organisms with neurological diseases or injury.

Her final comment is the most intriguing yet. She’s hinting at the idea that we might be able to use these small molecules — which she calls “chemical cocktails” — in a living person to convert their cells into fresh neurons on the spot. Imagine growing neurons right on your arm, then transplanting them into your brain or spinal cord to heal an injury. Medicine of the future might help us heal ourselves, by giving us new ways to control how our cells grow. [paper one and paper two] at Cell Stem Cell.

Image of chemical induced neurons courtesy of Gang Pei and Jian Zhao