In many debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or cerebral palsy, the cause usually stems from neurons in the nervous system losing the protective fatty covering they have called myelin. Myelin surrounds neurons and acts like the rubber around an electrical cord to prevent short-circuits when an electrical signal is transmitted down nerve cells.

Researchers have now performed biological alchemy and taken regular skin cells and reprogrammed them to become predecessors to oligodendrocyte cells. The job of these cells is to create the the myelin protein that protects neurons.These cells are the ones that are destroyed in diseases such as MS or other leukodystrophies, which are problems in the growth and development of white matter in the brain.

"We are taking a readily accessible and abundant cell and completely switching its identity to become a highly valuable cell for therapy," said Dr. Paul Tesar, the study's lead author.

In order to get precursor cells that could become myelin-producing oligodendrocytes, researchers previously had to obtain stem cells or fetal material and then treat them with certain chemicals so they would become myelin producing cells. The new method essentially reprograms skin cells into these precursor cells by increasing the levels of specific proteins known to be expressed at high levels in the oligodendrocyte progenitor cells.

The amazing part of this research is not only were the researchers able to observe that the former skin cells had become the predecessors to myelin producing cells, but they were functional in animals. By transplanting the newly changed cells into mice, which had a genetic predisposition to not having enough myelin in their nervous system, they found that the new cells began to cover neurons. The cells also produced myelin that surrounded the neurons and insulated them.

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

This line of experimentation gives renewed hope for treating diseases in which demylenation occurs. In MS, for instance, the immune system accidently attacks the myelin producing cells and kills them off. Even if the immune system is shut down or temporarily blocked from functioning the damage has been done. This method could help repair the damage that is caused in such diseases, and shift treatment from dealing with the symptoms to repairing permanent nerve damage.

The research published in the journal Nature Biotechnology can be found here.