Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Skin stem cells to treat brain disease

WASHINGTON: Skin cells re-programmed to act like embryonic stem cells eased symptoms of Parkinson's disease in rats, researchers reported on Monday in a first step toward tailored treatments for people that bypass concerns about using human embryos.

The experiments it may be possible to take a small sample of skin and turn it into a transplant perfectly matched to patients with Parkinson's and other diseases, the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It also supports the usefulness of newly created cells that resemble powerful embryonic stem cells. The stem cell experts used so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, which are skin cells reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells.

"It's a proof of principle experiment that argues, yes, these cells may have the therapeutic promise that people ascribe to them," said Rudolf Jaenisch, a stem cell expert at the Whitehead Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Researchers have been trying to find ways to harness stem cells, the body's master cells, to treat patients with serious injuries, brain diseases and organ damage caused by conditions such as diabetes.

Stem cells taken from very early embryos appear to be the most malleable and the most powerful. But many people object to their use because the embryo usually must be destroyed to extract them.

Several teams have reported a way to re-program ordinary skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells by adding several genes. Jaenisch's team tested some of these cells in rats and mice. They first got such cells to take up residence in the brains of unborn mice.

Then they damaged the brains of rats to resemble Parkinson's, which is caused by the destruction of certain brain cells that produce a message-carrying chemical called dopamine. Patients lose abilities associated with movement, and progress from a type of shakiness to paralysis and death.

There is no cure. Transplants of cells from fetuses have offered some relief from symptoms in a few people. In the rats, the cell transplants improved symptoms markedly, the researchers said.

"This is the first demonstration that re-programmed cells can integrate into the neural system or positively affect neurodegenerative disease," said MIT's Marius Wernig. One problem with transplanting these powerful but immature cells is that they can differentiate into undesired tissues.

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