Turning Skin Cells Into Nerve Cells to Study Lou Gehrig's Disease

By Eliza Strickland | August 1, 2008 8:34 am

motor neuron cellsIn a striking achievement, researchers have taken ordinary skin cells from two elderly women suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and have reprogrammed those cells to act like stem cells, the versatile cells that can grow into almost any kind of specialized cell. Then the researchers programmed the cells to turn into motor neurons, the type of nerve cells that waste away and die as ALS progresses.

The new nerve cells won’t be used in any sort of experimental treatment; instead researchers will look for flaws in these nerve cells to study the disease’s mechanism. “Now we can make limitless supplies of the cells that die in this awful disease. This will allow us to study these neurons, and ALS, in a lab dish, and figure out what’s happening in the disease process,” said [study coauthor] Dr. Kevin Eggan [Reuters]. This is particularly useful for ALS because the nerve cells affected by the disease are in patients’ spinal cords, making it impossible for researchers to take cell samples for study.

The experiment, reported in the journal Science [subscription required], used a process for reprogramming adult cells that was discovered by the Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka two years ago, which dodges the ethical quandaries involved in using stem cells from embryos. However, this method of cell reprogramming uses viruses to transport new genes into the cells, and can trigger cancer and other undesired effects. Research teams around the world are now looking for alternative methods of reprogramming cells without using viruses. Unless a safer method is found, the technique can’t be used to make treatments [Bloomberg].

Because the new nerve cells growing in petri dishes are a genetic match with the cells in the patients’ bodies, researchers says that this technique points the way towards personalized therapies for genetic diseases. In the long term, the new method could be applied to grow a patient’s own cells and tissues which, if the underlying cause of the disease is corrected in them, could be used to create tailor-made cells to treat debilitating disease [Telegraph]. Similar work on other genetic diseases is likely to follow; at recent scientific meetings researchers have discussed reprogramming cells from people with Alzheimer’s disease, Down’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy, and more [Nature News].

Image: Kit Rodolfa/John Dimos

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Michelle Smith

    I would just like to say that my hopes are great that this will help Huntingtons patients. I lost my uncle to it over a year ago and my aunt is in her 15th or so year of it. I have watched both just fade and there is nothing we can do. Unless you see it first hand you can not understand what this study means. Is there any hope in the near future that we can look into for my aunt?

  • Mandy F.

    This sounds very hopeful I am in support of Stem Cell research or any research that will one day cure diseases! My Dad was diagnosed with ALS-Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1997 and passed away in 2001 from this devastating disease. He was wheelchair bound similar to Christopher Reeve and had a feeding tube. His mind was unaffected as his body wasted away he was trapped inside a body that eventually would give out! My hope is that with open minds and future research we can find a treatment/cure for this disease as well as other debilitating diseases!

  • http://discovermagazine.com Eileen

    I am very excited about this work, however it is bittersweet for me as we waited for many years for a treatment or cure for my beloved mother who suffered from this dreadful disease for many, hard years on a ventilar and feeding tube. This is the ONLY real hope that I have heard of since she was diagnosed in 1994 and I became acutely aware of this disease. I will be watching this and following the results of the research and I hope and pray that the scientists are able to crack this mysterious illness.

    Thank you.

  • Kathy Webb

    This sounds encouraging. I lost my Mother at age 61 yrs. old in December 1999 to this horrible and unfair disease (Amotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). I hope they find a cure for this. I hope to hear more about this in the news.

  • Murat Bayramoglu

    I’m very excited about this new step. I’ve been following almost every single promising news about treatment of ALS and I think this work is one of the most encouraging news that I have heard over the last three years since my brother (ex-pilot) diagnosed with ALS. Six thousand people are estimated to be diagnosed with ALS in Turkey every year. Is there any hope in the near future that we can look into for my brother?


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