In a major breakthrough, scientists at the Gladstone Institutes transformed skin cells into heart cells and brain cells using a combination of chemicals.
All previous work on cellular reprogramming required adding external genes to the cells, making this accomplishment an unprecedented feat. The research lays the groundwork for one day being able to regenerate lost or damaged cells with pharmaceutical drugs.
In two studies published in Science and Cell Stem Cell, the team of scientists, who were led by Gladstone senior investigator Sheng Ding, PhD, and are part of the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Gladstone, used chemical cocktails to gradually coax skin cells to change into organ-specific stem cell-like cells and, ultimately, into heart or brain cells. This discovery offers a more efficient and reliable method to reprogram cells and avoids medical concerns surrounding genetic engineering.
More than 97% of the cells start beating and when they were transplanted into a mouse’s heart, they developed into healthy-looking heart tissue.
“This method brings us closer to being able to generate new cells at the site of injury in patients,” said Ding, the senior author on both studies.
“Our hope is to one day treat diseases like heart failure or Parkinson’s disease with drugs that help the heart and brain regenerate damaged areas from their own existing tissue cells. This process is much closer to the natural regeneration that happens in animals like newts and salamanders, which has long fascinated us.”
Genetic engineering of human cells remains controversial and the Gladstone researchers believe their method is a more efficient and reliable method of creating new cells to replace damaged tissue. They say, “Reprogramming a patient’s own cells could provide the safest and most efficient way to regenerate dying or diseased heart muscle.”
With their improved safety, these neural stem cells could one day be used for cell replacement therapy in neuro degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.