Scientists at Lund University in Sweden have developed a new technique that converts mature cells from human skin directly into brain cells, without passing through the stem cell stage.
With the direct conversion technique, the Swedish research group has for the first time succeeded in creating specific types of nerve cells from human skin.
The unexpectedly simple technique involves activating three genes in the skin cells- genes that are already known to be active in the formation of brain cells at the foetal stage.
"We didn't really believe this would work, to begin with it was mostly just an interesting experiment to try. However, we soon saw that the cells were surprisingly receptive to instructions," said Malin Parmar, head of the research team.
In experiments where a further two genes were activated, the researchers have been able to produce dopamine brain cells, the type of cell which dies in Parkinson's disease.
The research findings are therefore an important step towards the goal of producing nerve cells for transplant that originate from the patients themselves.
Also skipping the stem cell stage probably eliminates the risk of tumours forming when the cells are transplanted.
The study was published in the latest issue of the scientific journal PNAS.