Professor Charles ffrench-Constant told The Observer this weekend why this is such an important breakthrough: “A patient’s neurones can tell us a great deal about the psychological conditions that affect them, but you cannot stick a needle in someone’s brain and take out its cells. However, we have found a way round that. We can take a skin sample, make stem cells from it and then direct these stem cells to grow into brain cells.”
Making brain cells from skin cells
One area where this breakthrough will be important is in mental health. Professor Andrew McIntosh says, “We are making different types of brain cells out of skin samples from people with schizophrenia and bipolar depression. Once we have assembled these, we look at standard psychological medicines, such as lithium, to see how they affect these cells in the laboratory. After that, we can start to screen new medicines. Our lines of brain cells would become testing platforms for new drugs. We should be able to start that work in a couple of years.”
Previously, brain cells were mainly procured by autopsy after the patient’s death. McIntosh points out the problems with this method, saying that the brain tissue is often affected, “by whatever killed them and by the impact of the medication they had been taking for their condition, possibly for several decades.”
Few could argue research that will help us better understand such debilitating mental illnesses as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder could be a bad thing. One of the major ethical concerns in cloning was that scientists were taking stem cells from embryos and destroying them in the process. By using the skin to make stem cells this no longer becomes an issue.
Bypassing Stem cells
In fact, the BBC reported that researchers in California had managed to convert skin cells directly into brain cells from a mouse. Though it will be a while until this process can happen with humans, it would mean cloning could bypass the ethical dilemma of using stem cells altogether.