MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
Scientists at Harvard and Columbia universities have performed a kind of biological alchemy. They've transformed a skin cell into a nerve cell. And their starting point was not just any skin cell. It was taken from a woman suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The scientists don't expect their breakthrough will lead immediately to a cure, but they do say it provides a valuable new tool for lab research.
NPR's Joe Palca has our report.
JOE PALCA: ALS is a disease of the nervous system. Over time, a special kind of nerve cell, called a motor neuron, dies off, leaving the patient unable to move.
Professor KEVIN EGGAN (Harvard Stem Cell Institute): These nerve cells which die had been impossible to culture in the laboratory. And as a result, we have no idea of why they die.
PALCA: Kevin Eggan is a stem cell biologist at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. He says one way to get a patient's nerve cells to grow in the lab is to start by making embryonic stem cells from that patient. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. That means they can turn into any cell in the body. So in theory, you could use them to make nerve cells.
But making embryonic stem cells from adult humans hasn't been possible. Not only are there technical hurdles that haven't been overcome, but some people oppose the very idea for moral reasons.
A few years ago, a Japanese scientist showed you could get cells that were pluripotent like embryonic stem cells, but didn't involve making an embryo. You just add a cocktail of four genes to the adult cells you want to transform - and voila.
Eggan and his colleagues tried the technique on skin cells taken from an 82-year-old woman with ALS.
Prof. EGGAN: We actually infect them with four different viruses, each of which contains a particular embryonic gene. And then that has this desired effect of transforming those adult skin cells into these pluripotent stem cell lines, which can make all the different cells in the body, including the very specific type of nerve cell which dies in Lou Gehrig's disease.
PALCA: Eggan presents his work in the latest edition of the journal Science. Eggan does not expect the nerve cells he's growing from this patient to be useful for treating her disease. That's because the genes and viruses used to transform the patient's skin cells are known to cause cancer.
Prof. EGGAN: Until we find some way to be able to circumvent that difficulty, which I now think is just a matter of time, we won't be able to transplant these exact cells into patients.
PALCA: But the cells can be useful, since in theory they are the same as the ones that die in ALS patients.
Prof. EGGAN: And now we'll literally be able to make a limitless supply of those and ask why that is. And I think invariably that's going to lead to a better understanding of the disease and then in turn new drugs for the disease.
PALCA: There is reason for Eggan's optimism. Clive Svendsen is at the University of Wisconsin, where he also studies ALS. He says it makes sense that if you can study a cell in the lab, you can understand it better. But that hasn't happened yet.
Professor CLIVE SVENDSEN (Cambridge University): That is the next stage of the work. We can generate the neurons, now we have to find out are they any different and can we learn anything about the disease from those motor neurons.
PALCA: Svendsen says other research teams are trying to use the same technique the Harvard team used to grow cells specific to patients with other diseases.
Prof. SVENDSEN: I think you're going to see a lot of papers like this coming out soon that show that different diseases - ALS being one of them - we're going to have a new model or a new system in which to study the disease. And so ALS is now, and I think you'll see papers coming out on different disorders such as Parkinson's and other diseases in the near future.
PALCA: But as Svendsen says, then comes the hard part of trying to unravel the nature of these diseases and finding effective ways to treat them.
Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.