Last year our grantee at Stanford University, Marius Wernig, figured out how to turn human skin cells directly into a type of nerve cell. That was big news at the time. Until then, the process of going from skin to nerves required creating an intermediate stem cell (the Nobel prize-winning iPS cells), which slows the whole process down. And given that the eventual goal is new therapies, speed is key.
Fast forward to April 14, when Wernig and his colleagues published a paper in Nature Biotechnology showing that not only could they convert skin into nerve cells, they could convert it into a specific type of cell that in other experiments has been shown to treat multiple sclerosis, at least in lab animals.
The cells in question are called oligodendrocyte precursor cells, or OPC. These OPCs produce the cells that wrap nerve cells with a protective sheath and allows signals to zoom along the nerve. It’s those sheaths that are damaged in people with multiple sclerosis.
Wernig’s hope is that by creating a plentiful supply of those protective cells and then placing them in the brain we might be able to help treat MS and other conditions including spinal cord injury.
If you are like me and have a limited ability to decipher the group’s scientific paper then you should read San Francisco Business Times reporter Ron Leuty’s interview with Marius Wernig. It’s a great look at the potential for this approach in tackling a number of different neurological diseases.
He recorded a short description of this research at our recent grantee meeting: