Writers have The Elements of Style, chemists have the periodic table, and biomedical researchers could soon have a comprehensive reference on how to make neurons in a dish. Kristin Baldwin of the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award to begin drafting an online resource that will provide other researchers the information they need to reprogram mature human skin cells reproducibly into a variety of neurons that closely resemble those found in the brain and nervous system.
These lab-grown neurons could be used to improve our understanding of basic human biology and to develop better models for studying Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and a wide range of other neurological conditions. Such questions have been extremely difficult to explore in mice and other animal models because they have shorter lifespans and different brain structures than humans.
The focus of Baldwin’s work will be the thousands of proteins, called transcription factors, that switch genes on and off in our cells and play key roles in determining cell fate. Groundbreaking research several years ago in the lab of Marius Wernig at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, established that forcing the activation of three preselected transcription factors in mature skin cells, or fibroblasts, could convert them into neurons . Baldwin wondered whether greatly expanding the list of transcription factors might produce a diverse array of neuronal subtypes.
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