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VWN News: Cells reprogrammed on the computer
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 Cells reprogrammed on the computer

This story is from the category Pure Research
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Date posted: 04/08/2013

Scientists at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg have developed a model that makes predictions from which differentiated cells – for instance skin cells – can be very efficiently changed into completely different cell types – such as nerve cells, for example.

This can be done entirely without stem cells. These computer-based instructions for reprogramming cells are of huge significance for regenerative medicine. The LCSB researchers present their results today in the prestigious scientific journal “Stem Cells”. This is the first paper based solely on theoretical, yet practically proven, results of computational biology to be published in this journal. (DOI: 10.1002/stem.1473)

All cells of an organism originate from embryonic stem cells, which divide and increasingly differentiate as they do so. The ensuing tissue cells remain in a stable state; a skin cell does not spontaneously change into a nerve cell or heart muscle cell. “Yet the medical profession is greatly interested in such changes, nonetheless. They could yield new options for regenerative medicine,” says Professor Antonio del Sol, head of the Computational Biology group at LCSB. The applications could be of enormous benefit: When nerve tissue becomes diseased, for example, then doctors could take healthy cells from the patient’s own skin. They could then reprogram these to develop into nerve cells. These healthy nerve cells would then be implanted into the diseased tissue or even replace it entirely. This would treat, and ideally heal, diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

The techniques for cell programming are still in their infancy. Stem cell researchers Shinya Yamanaka and John Burdon received the Nobel Prize for converting differentiated body cells back into stem cells only last year. The first successful direct conversion of skin cells to nerve cells in the lab was in 2010. Biologists add refined cocktails of molecules, i.e. growth factors, to the cell cultures in a certain order. This allows them to control the genetic activity in the conversion process. However, this method so far has been largely guided by – educated – trial and error.

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