Skin becomes brain

BBC News ponders what it means for our bodies when Stanford University professors start shuffling around our cellular building blocks. Not turning stem cells into other kinds of cells, but directly transforming skin into brain:

This study created “neural precursor” cells, which can develop into three types of brain cell: neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes.

These precursor cells have the advantage that, once created, they can be grown in a laboratory into very large numbers. This could be critical if the cells were to be used in any therapy.

Brain cells and skin cells contain the same genetic information, however, the genetic code is interpreted differently in each. This is controlled by “transcription factors”.

The scientists used a virus to infect skin cells with three transcription factors known to be at high levels in neural precursor cells.

After three weeks about one in 10 of the cells became neural precursor cells.

Lead researcher Prof Marius Wernig said: “We are thrilled about the prospects for potential medical use of these cells.

“We’ve shown the cells can integrate into a mouse brain and produce a missing protein important for the conduction of electrical signal by the neurons.”