A group of researchers from Stanford University have done what scientists have been trying to do for years, says Not Exactly Rocket Science's Ed Yong — they have identified a quartet of proteins that can be used together to transform human skin cells into working neurons. The researchers, whose work is published in Nature, tried the same thing with mice last year, using a trio of proteins — Brn2, Ascl1, and Myt1l — they nicknamed BAM factors, Yong says. But when they tried to use this protein combination on human skin cells, they found that although the cells started to look like neurons, they couldn't carry electrical signals. When they team added a fourth protein, NeuroD1, the transformation was complete, and the quartet — now called BAMN — fully converted the skin cells into neurons. "They had formed working synapses and were sending signals to one another. And best of all, they could integrate into existing networks. When the team cultured the changing cells alongside existing neurons, they slotted seamlessly in," Yong says. Recent studies have shown that there are risks when researchers transform skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, so it's not yet clear if this method will have the same problems. More research needs to be done before the cells can be used on humans, but the team is "optimistic" about the method's prospects, Yong adds.
As Emeril Says, BAM(N)!
May 27, 2011