Researchers Find Technique to Create Millions of Brain Cells in Just a Few Days

Jared Kaltwasser

Researchers found a way to greatly speed up the cell-making process.

British scientists say they’ve found a way to greatly speed up the process of creating millions of human brain and muscle cells. The news could have major implications for the development of therapies for conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge say the breakthrough came when they found a way to simplify the technique used to create new cells.

“This method opens the doors to producing all sorts of hard-to-access cells and tissues so we can better our understanding of diseases and the response of these tissues to newly developed therapeutics,” said Cambridge’s Mark Kotter, MD, PhD, the study’s lead author.

In the human body, brain cells typically develop over the course of 9 to 12 months. Up until now, scientists working in laboratories have needed between 3 and 20 weeks to induce a brain cell from a pluripotent stem cell. Kotter and his fellow researchers say they can now do the same in just a few days.

The new technique relies on a platform called OPTi-OX, which stands for Optimized inducible Overexpression. According to the study’s authors, the name “refers to the controllable expression of inducible transgenes in human pluripotent stem cells and their derivatives.” The platform alters the DNA of the stem cells in order to “switch on” specific genes, resulting in the speedy production of millions of identical cells. For their study, the scientists created oligodendrocytes, neurons, and muscle cells, but they say the technology ought to be able to create any type of cell.

"What is really exciting is we only needed to change a few ingredients—transcription factors—to produce the exact cells we wanted in less than a week,” Ludovic Vallier, PhD, (photo) a co-author and researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said in a news release. “We over-expressed factors that make stem cells directly convert into the desired cells, thereby bypassing development and shortening the process to just a few days."

The scientists say their technique will be a boon to drug developers, as it will increase both the speed and supply of pluripotent stem cells available for research. In addition to multiple sclerosis, the drug could also benefit research into cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and a large number of other health care conditions.

The technique could also work hand-in-hand with major efforts to map the human body’s cells, such as the Human Cell Atlas, said Daniel Ortmann, a PHD student at the University of Cambridge.

“When we receive a wealth of new information on the discovery of new cells from large scale projects, like the Human Cell Atlas, it means we’ll be able to apply this method to produce any cell type in the body, but in a dish,” Ortmann said.

The researchers have created a spin-out company, Elpis Biomed Ltd., to market the OPTi-OX technology commercially.

The study, titled, “Inducible and deterministic forward programming of human pluripotent stem cells” was published March 23 in Stem Cell Reports. The news release and photo were provided by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

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