A team of German researchers have developed a technique for transforming support cells in the brain called astroglia into functioning neurons, according to a study published yesterday in the Public Library of Science Biology.
Scientists hope the findings help lead to new therapies that use existing cells to repair damage to the brain or spinal cord caused by stroke, injury, or neurodegenerative disease. Although such therapies are a ways off, the study does add to the growing evidence that specific cell types can be converted into other cell types without first being transformed into stem cells, reports MIT Review:
Researchers have previously transformed skin cells into neurons, and one type of pancreatic cell into another. Marius Wernig, a coauthor of the skin cell study and a stem cell biologist at Stanford University, says there's a growing awareness that it may not be necessary to erase a cell's existing identity before giving it a new one.
Wernig says that the PLOS Biology paper offers a new strategy for creating neurons that complements the approach of using skin cells. Skin cells, he says, would be more useful for generating a patient's own cells in a petri dish for transplantation, because a skin sample is easy to obtain. In contrast, this latest study "means that these astroglial cells could be converted in the brain" without the need for a transplant.