Converting Skin Cells into Brain Cells

Julie Douglas

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We clean it, decorate it, stretch it and pull it and pierce it. It's the skin you're in, and pretty soon it could even serve as protective brain cells.

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine successfully created oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) from regular old skin cells in mice and rats. What's special about OPCs is that they wrap nerve cells in a myelin sheath - an insulator that acts as a power booster to deliver signals from one nerve cell axon to another.

It can be used to help spinal cord injury patients as well as those with diseases like multiple sclerosis, which can attack myelin, slowing the signal and leading to motor, cognitive and sensory problems.

Nan Yang, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the Wernig laboratory and lead author of the study, says "By using the patient's own skin cells, we should be able to generate transplantable OPCs that are genetically identical to the patient's natural OPCs." This means that the body is less apt to alert the immune system, clearing one of the major hurdles in transplantation medicine, immune rejection.

Another huge advantage is that skin cells are plentiful. Skin is the body's largest organ, and if you were to stretch out the skin of the average adult, it would cover 22 square feet, about the size of a twin bed, and weigh 8 pounds.

Look for the next phase of the study to delve into the transformation of human skin cells to brain cells.

More reading: Researchers turn skin cells directly into the cells that insulate neurons