Health and Medicine Technology

Scientists Transform Skin Cells Into Heart And Brain Cells


Scientists at Gladstone Institute recently transformed skin cells into both heart and brain cells with the help of a combination of chemicals.

Cellular reprogramming has in the past required the help of external genes, making this new find a true breakthrough in the science community. While this is just the beginning of this type of research, this will one day help to regenerate damaged cells with only pharmaceutical drugs required.

The research was published within two studies in the Science and Cell Stem Cell by a team of scientists constructed by senior investigator Sheng Ding, PhD. The team is part of the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Gladstone. They used what they call a “cocktail” of chemicals to transform skin cells into organic cells that are very similar to stem cells. This completely removes the medical concerns that generally surround genetic engineering, proving a much more reliable and effective transformation.

Ding says this new method brings science that much closer to being able to generate brand new cells right at the place of injury in patients. The team hopes that one day they will be able to treat diseases such as heart failure or even Parkinson’s with medications that push the heart and brain to regenerate during damage with the help of surrounding healthy tissue cells. He compares these findings to the regeneration we naturally see in salamanders.

human heart cell
A human heart cell that was chemically reprogrammed from a skin cells. (Image Credit: Nan Cao / Gladstone Institutes)

While an adult heart is able to regenerate naturally, the limit to which is can “fix” itself is quite limited. For years scientists have attempted to find a way to replace the cells that are lost upon a heart attack, but the treatments are typically not very effective with maybe a handful of cells repairing themselves. Deepak Srivastava, MD, and the director of Cardiovascular and Stem Cell Research within Gladstone has been using genes that change cells that create scar tissue within the hearts of animals to brand new muscle, which have shown to make the hearts function better. Chemical-induced methods hold promise of a much easier approach. Within the study written in Science, nine chemicals were used in a cocktail in an attempt to change the human cells into not just heart cells but heart cells that would beat. Finally, the correct combination was discovered. The cells created were very similar to multi-potent stem cells, which can be easily changed into the types of cells needed for a specific organ. Another cocktail discovered was able to take these cells and make the transition to heart muscle cells. This offers a 97% success rate and integrated beautifully to blend in with the surrounding cells.

Neurons formed from chemically-induced neural stem cells. (Image credit: Mingliang Zhang / Gladstone Institutes)

In another study published in Cell Stem Cell, neural stem cells created from mouse skin cells were used. Again, nine molecules were tested, some of them matching those in the heart study. Over a ten day period, the chemicals were able to effectively change the cells: turning off skin cell genes, while neural stem cells genes were switched on like a light switch. When placed within mice, the neural stem cells transformed into the neurons, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes of the brain and were able to replicate themselves. This proves great for the future of brain injury sufferers.

Co-senior author and senior investigator at Gladstone, Yadong Huang, MD, PhD, says the improved safety of these neural stem cells may one day be able to completely get rid of the need for cell replacement therapy. He says in the future, such treatment may be provided simply through drug cocktails that target the brain and spinal cord, rejuvenating cells in real time.