Scientists in Auckland have achieved a world first – by taking human skin and turning it into brain cells.
Its a breakthrough in developing a treatment for patients with Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s, and a crucial step towards doctors being able to replace cells damaged in the brain.
Petri dishes in a laboratory hold the hopes of countless people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They contain human skin cells in the process of being transformed into immature or pre-cursor brain cells.
They will be used to study the way those diseases develop and affect the brain.
In the past, scientists had to use brain tissue from people after they’d died but Dr Bronwen Connor from Auckland University’s Centre for Brain research says they can now look at living cells.
“By being able to actually look at how a disease progresses in a human cell we can identify new targets for drugs, we can understand better how the disease progresses.”
They can also look at what causes the diseases and how to prevent them from occurring.
Before that though, scientists will use the brain cells to test new drugs and see how well they work.
One day they hope the cells can replace those damaged through accident or disease.
“We can potentially make them from the patients’ own skin cells, so that removes any issues of immune rejection by the body and any ethical or moral issues in regards to donors,” Dr Connor says.
There’s similar work going on around the world, but they’re using cells from animals, not humans.
It’s an exciting time for scientists. In England they have re-grown synthetic body parts to use in transplants.
In Colombia, US researchers are testing a drug they hope will prevent Alzheimer’s.
Dr Connor hopes the breakthrough in Auckland will speed up the work of scientists around the world in unravelling complex brain diseases.