British scientists have successfully generated brain tissue from human skin. The team has for the first time generated a crucial type of brain cells in the laboratory by reprogramming skin cells. They say it could speed up the hunt for new treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and stroke.
Until now it has only been possible to generate tissue from the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain where most major neurological diseases occur, by using controversial embryonic stem cells, obtained by the destruction of an embryo. This has meant the supply of brain tissue available for research has been limited due to ethical concerns and limited availability.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge say they have overcome this problem, showing for the first time that it is possible to reprogram adult human skin cells so they develop into neurons found in the cerebral cortex.
The newly created cells will help re-create brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s in the lab, while providing what scientists call “previously impossible insight” to allow them to develop and test new drugs to stop these devastating diseases from progressing. The findings will also enable scientists to study how the human cerebral cortex develops, how it “wires up” and how learning disabilities occur.
Dr Rick Livesey, who led the research at the university’s Gurdon Institute, said, “’The cerebral cortex makes up 75 per cent of the human brain. It is where all the important processes that make us human take place. It is, however, also the major place where disease can occur. We have been able to take reprogrammed skin cells so they develop into brain stem cells and then essentially replay brain development in the laboratory. We can study brain development and what goes wrong when it is affected by disease in a way we haven’t been able to before. We see it as a major breakthrough in what will now be possible.”
Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said, “Turning stem cells into networks of fully functional nerve cells in the lab holds great promise for unraveling complex brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The findings were funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Welcome Trust.