From skin cells to motor neurons

From skin cells to motor neurons

Harvard Gazette | August 26, 2011

A team of Harvard stem cell researchers has succeeded in reprogramming adult mouse skin cells directly into the type of motor neurons damaged in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), best known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). These new cells, which researchers are calling induced motor neurons (iMNs), can be used to study the development of the paralyzing diseases and to develop treatments for them.

Producing motor neurons this way is much less labor intensive than having to go through the process of creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC, iPS cells), and is so much faster than the iPS method that it potentially could reduce by a year the time it eventually takes to produce treatments for ALS and SMA, said Kevin Eggan, leader of the Harvard team.

Importantly, the direct reprograming does not involve the use of any factors known to trigger cancer or any other disease states, and the factors in fact make the fibroblasts, the connective tissue cells that make and secrete collagen proteins, stop dividing.

The work by Eggan, a member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute principal faculty and an associate professor in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (SCRB), and his colleagues builds on and advances work by SCRB co-chair and Professor Doug Melton, who pioneered direct cellular reprogramming, and Marius Wernig of Stanford, who used direct reprogramming to produce generalized neurons.

In a paper given “Immediate Early Publication” online by Cell Stem Cell, the Eggan team reports that the cells they are calling iMNs appear to be fully functional. “One of the most important things we’ve done is show that when you put them into the embryo they function normally like motor neurons,” Eggan said in an interview. “They move to the right place and function on their own.”

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