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UCLA doctors 'reprogram' adult skin cells

January 23, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Stem cells could hold the key to the treatment and cure of more than 70 major diseases and conditions. Now one laboratory is taking stem-cell technology another step into the future.

UCLA scientists are reporting embryonic stem cells can ease blindness in some people. A report in the journal Lancet finds injecting these cells into people with serious vision loss helped them do better on eye tests in just four months.

That's one example of how stem cells can help with blindness, severed spines and damaged brains. Now some researchers say you don't have to rely on embryonic stem cells.

"We had a major breakthrough," said Dr. Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease.

Dr. Srivastava and Dr. Sheng Ding are two of the many minds at Gladstone Institute who are using not adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells, but your own skin cells to repair bodies from the inside out.

"It means that in the future one might be able to create new heart cells, new brain cells, new spinal cord cells, starting with your own cells," said Srivastava.

Srivastava is taking adult skin cells and turning them into beating heart cells. It's called direct reprogramming.

"We've been able to create a beating heart cell that used to be on somebody's skin, which is really like science fiction," said Srivastava.

The same approach could be used to repair spinal cord injuries and practically any other part of the body.

"We've been really working on new conditions and new methods that actually can convert cells from skin directly into functional brain cells," said Ding.

Ding has transformed the adult skin cells into neurons that are capable of transmitting brain signals. They hope this could reverse the effects of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and stroke.

"It is the ultimate personalized medicine," said Srivastava.

The next big thing in medicine is more than just skin deep.

Doctors say because they're using a patient's own skin cells there's little to no chance of rejection. These skin cells could also be used to test new drugs and each patient's possible response to those drugs, allowing doctors to better personalize medicine.