Human skin cells have been converted directly into neurons by using microRNAs by scientists. The latter are short chains of genetic material best known for their ability to bind to specific genetic transcripts to turn off their activity.
The addition of two particular gene snippets to a skin cell's usual genetic material is enough to turn that cell into a fully functional neuron, said researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The new capability to essentially grow neurons from scratch is a big step for neuroscience research, which has been stymied by the lack of human neurons for study.
"A major problem in neurobiology has been the lack of a good human model," senior author Gerald Crabtree, MD, professor of pathology and of developmental biology, said.
"Neurons aren't like blood. They're not something people want to give up," he stated.
Generating neurons from easily accessible cells, such as skin cells, makes possible new ways to study neuronal development, model disease processes and test treatments.
It also helps advance the effort, still in its infancy, to replace damaged or dead neurons with new ones.
Crabtree's study is unique because of the surprising microRNAs' ability that nudged the cells to switch.
"In this case, though, they're playing an instructive role," Crabtree said.
The finding has been published online July 13 in Nature.