Cell reprogramming has opened great therapeutic possibilities in medicine. Within this field, one of the most attractive possibilities would be to replace neurons that may be destroyed in various illnesses or following a stroke.
Now, a new prospect has been raised: replacing the damaged neurons in mice brain themself. Thus, at the annual meeting of the Society of Neurosciences held in mid-November last year, a team from the University of Munich presented experiments conducted in mice in which, it seems, they were able to convert astrocytes (neurological connective tissue cells)—abundant neuronal cells in the brain—into neurons (see moreHERE). Having presented evidence that reprogrammed astrocytes acquire neuronal properties, two other groups also presented similar findings, with one of them even observing that mice that had suffered an experimental stroke were able to recover movements in their limbs. Some experts see in these experiments a potential alternative to transplanting stem cells or stem cell-derived neurons into the damaged brain or spinal cord.
Cell reprogramming neurons. “I believe this is the future”
Several clinical trials using this strategy are currently underway for treating Parkinson’s disease or even spinal cord injuries. In the opinion of Gong Chen, a neuroscientist at Pennsylvania State University, the recent discovery that mature cells can be directed to develop other cell types could be a good option for treating this type of problem, even saying that “I cannot imagine another technology more efficient than using the neighboring glial cell” to repair the brain. This possibility is also being tested in several other laboratories using various transcription factors. One such lab is that of Timothy Murphy, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (Canada), who has shown that the brain circuits can improve using these techniques after a stroke. The aforementioned Dr Chen has founded a company to develop therapies based on astrocyte reprogramming.
Chen says that “I believe this is the future”, “it’s the next frontier in regenerative medicine”. One way or the other, though, it is undeniable that these in vivo cell reprogramming experiments are opening a promising door to repairing brain injuries. This is very interesting from a bioethical point of view, if we take into account that these experiments use adult stem cells, whose use implies no bioethical difficulties.