Neural crest cells from adult skin cells without genetic modification!

Neural crest cells from adult skin cells without genetic modification!

A discovery, several years in the making, by a University at Buffalo research team has proven that adult skin cells can be converted into neural crest cells (a type of stem cell) without any genetic modification, and that these stem cells can yield other cells that are present in the spinal cord and the brain.

"It's actually quite remarkable that it happens," says the senior author, who recently published a paper on the results in the journal Stem Cells.

The identity of the cells was further confirmed by lineage tracing experiments, where the reprogrammed cells were implanted in chicken embryos and acted just as neural crest cells do.

Stem cells have been derived from adult cells before, but not without adding genes to alter the cells. The new process in the presence of fibroblast growth factor 2 and insulin like growth factor 1 yielded neural crest cells without addition of foreign genetic material. The reprogrammed neural crest cells can become smooth muscle cells, melanocytes, Schwann cells or neurons.

"In medical applications this has tremendous potential because you can always get a skin biopsy," ssenior author says. "We can grow the cells to large numbers and reprogram them, without genetic modification. So, autologous cells derived from the patient can be used to treat devastating neurogenic diseases that are currently hampered by the lack of easily accessible cell sources."

The process can also be used to model disease. Skin cells from a person with a genetic disease of the nervous system can be reprogrammed into neural crest cells. These cells will have the disease-causing mutation in their chromosomes, but the genes that cause the mutation are not expressed in the skin. The genes are likely to be expressed when cells differentiate into neural crest lineages, such as neurons or Schwann cells, thereby enabling researchers to study the disease in a dish. This is similar to induced pluripotent stem cells, but without genetic modification or reprograming to the pluripotent state.