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Researchers at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine have discovered a way to turn ordinary skin cells into protective brain cells – a breakthrough that could have a resounding impact on people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and similar diseases. Myelinating cells protect neurons as electric pulses travel from the brain to the rest of the body. In people who suffer from myelinating disorders, these sheaths are destroyed and are very difficult to repair. Now researchers have successfully converted the skin cells of mice into oligodendrocytes, a cell that myelinates neurons, and they hope the same technique might eventually be replicated in humans.

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In a process known as cellular reprogramming, the scientists converted fibroplasts, which is an abundant structural cell present in skin and organs, to become oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, or OPCs, according to Physorg. When transplanted in mice, these induced OPCs (iOPCs) successfully regenerated the myelin sheath around the neurons.

“Its ‘cellular alchemy,'” Paul Tesar, PhD, assistant professor of genetics and genome sciences at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and senior author of the study told the paper. “We are taking a readily accessible and abundant cell and completely switching its identity to become a highly valuable cell for therapy.”

Before, only fetal tissue or pluripotent stem cells could be used to regenerate myelinating cells, Phsyorg reports, and even then it was an incomplete science that couldn’t create the cells nearly as quickly or as easily as this latest technique. Now they hope to explore the possibility of using the same process to repair human brain cells.

Stanton Gerson, MD, professor of Medicine-Hematology/Oncology at the School of Medicine and director of the National Center for Regenerative Medicine and the UH Case Medical Center Seidman Cancer Center, calls it “a real breakthrough.”

This research was originally published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Via Physorg