The regular drip drip of news stories telling how scientists have yet again turned stem cells into heart, kidney, or nerve cells makes you wonder why doctors are still not prescribing stem cell therapies. Amid the fanfare heralding these amazing feats lurks the danger of cancer as the new cells can unpredictably develop without an ‘off-switch’. This happens during an intermediate stage of their development when cells are known as progenitors, which proliferate. But in independent, promising studies, scientists have entirely by-passed this risky stage, when they turned mouse (right) and human skin cells directly into neurons (yellow in the left-hand image), by bathing the cells in a chemical cocktail of seven different molecules that gently modified the activity of the cells’ genes, coaxing them to turn into neurons. This technique could offer a less aggressive alternative to traditional transcription factor approaches that push cells to become harder-to-control progenitors.
Written by Tristan Farrow
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