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, report researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine. The finding, to be published online July 13 in Nature, is one of just a few recent reports of ways to create human neurons in a lab dish.
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. Unlike skin cells or blood cells, neurons are not something that’s easy for a living human to donate for research.
“A major problem in neurobiology has been the lack of a good human model,” said senior author Gerald Crabtree, MD, professor of pathology and of developmental biology. “Neurons aren’t like blood. They’re not something people want to give up.”
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.