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Stanford scientists turn mice tail components into brain cells

By Rob Waters
Bloomberg News / January 28, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO - Skin cells from the tails of mice were turned into neurons able to form connections crucial to brain function, a study said. The Stanford University scientists who performed the feat said it should work with human tissue.

The research, published yesterday in the journal Nature, is the latest demonstration that cells’ basic functions can be transformed by inserting or turning on the right genes in their DNA. In this case, that was accomplished without first turning the skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells before they were changed into different kinds of body cells.

The work provides a more efficient way to make neurons from the skin of people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases than a method Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan developed four years ago. Yamanaka’s breakthrough showed that skin cells from mice or humans could be made into stem cells and manipulated again to become any cell in the body.

The paper “might be a landmark,’’ said Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Institute. “There’s a long history of failure in this field. Researchers tried for 30 years to convert a common cell type into neurons. People published papers, but no one ever made a real neuron.’’

Two years ago, Douglas Melton, a Harvard University’s Stem Cell Institute researcher who focuses on diabetes, showed that one cell in the pancreas could be turned into another without first reverting to a primitive, embryo-like cell. Melton said the Stanford work was a major advance because it starts with cells that can be easily obtained from a person.