ALS Research: Skin Cells Turned into Nerve Cells

The International Alliance of ALS has stated that approximately 120,000 new diagnoses of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis are made worldwide each year. As there are no effective treatments or a cure for this fatal disease, Dr. Kevin Eggan of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and Dr. Chris Henderson, co-director of the Center for Motor Neuron Biology and Disease at Columbia University, have joined together with several colleagues to work on this problem.

The International Alliance of ALS has stated that approximately 120,000 new diagnoses of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis are made worldwide each year. As there are no effective treatments or a cure for this fatal disease, Dr. Kevin Eggan of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and Dr. Chris Henderson, co-director of the Center for Motor Neuron Biology and Disease at Columbia University, have joined together with several colleagues to work on this problem. In a recent study published in Science, they announced the ability to take ordinary skin cells from two ALS patients and transform them into “nerve cells in a first step toward treating them;” motor neurons created by the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells technique, “may be used in the future to create tailor-made cells to treat the debilitating disease.”

The success of this research will enable researchers to reproduce “limitless supplies of the cells that die in this awful disease,” said Eggan in a July 31 press release. “This will allow us to study these neurons, and ALS, in a lab dish, and figure out what’s happening in the disease process.” Studying the motor neurons should make it easier for researchers to find flaws in the cells and see if they are able recreate the disease to then test possible treatments. Henderson said that not understanding the disease process “is preventing us from developing more effective (treatments).” He also noted that should the iPS technique hold “its promise in producing neurons and other cells for research, it will probably replace the ‘therapeutic cloning’ approach, but there are still lots of questions about the iPS-derived neurons.”

Do you think the success of transforming skin cells into nerve cells will lead to additional research for similar neurological diseases that eventually lead to patients becoming paralyzed? The use of embryonic stem cells for scientific research has been at the core of many political, religious and scientific debates; what are your thoughts about using genetically engineered skin cells instead?