Researchers produce motor neurons from embryonic stem cells

July 18, 2002 -- Beginning with cultured mouse embryonic stem cells, researchers have administered a precise mix of chemical signals to coax the cells to differentiate into functioning motor neurons.

The achievement was made possible by a decade of work in deciphering the signals that trigger differentiation of motor neurons, which are responsible for controlling the movement of muscles. The experiments represent an important step in applying that knowledge to grow functioning neurons from stem cells -- undifferentiated cells that have the potential to become many different types of adult cells.

According to the researchers, the success of the experiments with mouse cells suggests that the same type of approach might be used to grow human motor neurons from stem cells. Such neurons could enable regeneration of nerve tissue lost to disease or trauma.

The experiments by researchers led by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Thomas Jessell at Columbia University were reported in an article that was given immediate early publication status by the journal Cell and published online on July 17, 2002. The research was funded in part by Project A.L.S.

For more than 15 years, Jessell and his colleagues have been attempting to untangle the delicate connections of nerve cells in the developing spinal cord. Their studies have shown that the fledgling vertebrate nervous system is crackling with activity -- genes are being turned on and off at a rapid pace, transforming immature cells into a billions-strong network of specialized neural cells. Ultimately, Jessell hopes that his research will provide a more thorough understanding of how the central nervous system (CNS) is constructed -- this, he says, may suggest new ways to repair diseased or damaged components of the mature CNS.

According to Jessell, the attempt to generate motor neurons from stem cells reli

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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