Ordinary Skin Cells Morphed into Functional Brain Cells

Scientists at CWRU School of Medicine Discover New Technique that Holds Promise for the Treatment of Multiple Sclerosis and Cerebral Palsy

News Release: Sunday, April 14, 2013

CLEVELAND - Researchers at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine have discovered a technique that directly converts skin cells to the type of brain cells destroyed in patients with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and other so-called myelin disorders.

This discovery appears today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

This breakthrough now enables “on demand” production of myelinating cells, which provide a vital sheath of insulation that protects neurons and enables the delivery of brain impulses to the rest of the body. In patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy (CP), and rare genetic disorders called leukodystrophies, myelinating cells are destroyed and cannot be replaced.

The new technique involves directly converting fibroblasts - an abundant structural cell present in the skin and most organs - into oligodendrocytes, the type of cell responsible for myelinating the neurons of the brain.

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

In a process termed “cellular reprogramming,” researchers manipulated the levels of three naturally occurring proteins to induce fibroblast cells to become precursors to oligodendrocytes (called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, or OPCs).

Tesar’s team, led by Case Western Reserve researchers and co-first authors Fadi Najm and Angela Lager, rapidly generated billions of these induced OPCs (called iOPCs). Even more important, they showed that iOPCs could regenerate new myelin coatings around nerves after being transplanted to mice—a result that offers hope the technique might be used to treat human myelin disorders.

When oligodendrocytes are damaged or become dysfunctional in myelinating diseases, the insulating myelin coating that normally coats nerves is lost. A cure requires the myelin coating to be regenerated by replacement oligodendrocytes.

Until now, OPCs and oligodendrocytes could only be obtained from fetal tissue or pluripotent stem cells. These techniques have been valuable, but with limitations.

“The myelin repair field has been hampered by an inability to rapidly generate safe and effective sources of functional oligodendrocytes,” explained co-author and myelin expert Robert Miller, PhD, professor of neurosciences at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and the university’s vice president for research. “The new technique may overcome all of these issues by providing a rapid and streamlined way to directly generate functional myelin producing cells.”

This initial study used mouse cells. The critical next step is to demonstrate feasibility and safety using human cells in a lab setting. If successful, the technique could have widespread therapeutic application to human myelin disorders.

“The progression of stem cell biology is providing opportunities for clinical translation that a decade ago would not have been possible,” said 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. “It is a real breakthrough.”

Additional co-authors of the publication include Case Western Reserve School of Medicine researchers Anita Zaremba, Krysta Wyatt, Andrew Caprariello, Daniel Factor, Robert Karl, and Tadao Maeda.

The research was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the New York Stem Cell Foundation, the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

About Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Founded in 1843, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine is the largest medical research institution in Ohio and is among the nation's top medical schools for research funding from the National Institutes of Health. The School of Medicine is recognized throughout the international medical community for outstanding achievements in teaching. The School's innovative and pioneering Western Reserve2 curriculum interweaves four themes--research and scholarship, clinical mastery, leadership, and civic professionalism--to prepare students for the practice of evidence-based medicine in the rapidly changing health care environment of the 21st century. Eleven Nobel Laureates have been affiliated with the school.

Annually, the School of Medicine trains more than 800 M.D. and M.D./Ph.D. students and ranks in the top 25 among U.S. research-oriented medical schools as designated by U.S. News & World Report "Guide to Graduate Education."

The School of Medicine's primary affiliate is University Hospitals Case Medical Center and is additionally affiliated with MetroHealth Medical Center, the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the Cleveland Clinic, with which it established the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University in 2002.