Stem cells, forged into neurons, show promise for brain repair

MADISON - In a set of meticulous experiments, scientists have demonstrated the ability of human embryonic stem cells to develop into nascent brain cells and, seeded into the intact brains of baby mice, further develop into healthy, functioning neural cells.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology (December, 2001), a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with colleagues from the University of Bonn Medical Center, show that the blank-slate stem cells taken from early human embryos can, in a laboratory dish, be guided down the developmental pathway to becoming precursor brain cells.

Transplanted into the brains of baby mice, the precursor cells subsequently showed their ability to further differentiate into neurons and astrocytes, the cell species that populate the different regions of the brain and spinal cord.

The work represents a critical step toward a high-stakes payoff for human embryonic stem cell technology - an inexhaustible supply of transplantable neural cells and tissue to repair everything from spinal cord injuries to the ravages of Parkinson's disease. The new work was conducted largely at the WiCell Institute in Madison, Wis., and is now being continued at the UW-Madison Waisman Center.

"This is a very important step. The cells work" as they should, says Su-Chun Zhang, a UW-Madison professor of anatomy and neurology and the lead author of the Nature Biotechnology paper. Co-authors include James A. Thomson and Ian D. Duncan, also of UW-Madison, and Marius Wernig and Oliver Brustle of the University of Bonn Medical Center.

The newly published work is critically important for two reasons: One, it establishes the fact that human embryonic stem cells can be guided down the developmental pathway to becoming brain cells and, two, it shows that they can be transplanted into animals and further develop into the more specific types of cells necessary for normal brain function.

Contact: Su-Chun Zhang
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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