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Designer Dopamine Neurons From Skin Cells May Help With Parkinson's Treatment

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Researchers from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo (UB) discovered that patients with Parkinson's diseases may be helped by a customized form of dopamine neurons. The source of the so-called designer agents? Skin cells.

Patients with Parkinson's disease have one common problem and that is the lack of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in the brain's continuous function.

Scientists have long tried to repair dopamine damage in patients with Parkinson's disease. They tried to implant neurons back into the brain in the hopes of restoring normal function, but have not been successful.

The main goal of every scientist trying to develop an effective solution against Parkinson's disease is to find a technique to fix faulty dopamine neurons. Some have used fetal materials, but this did not prevail as the necessary materials are hard to obtain and the entire process is long and tedious.

The obstacles that hindered these scientists from producing a Parkinson's treatment were the driving force of the UB researchers. They thought of a way to transform cells that are much easier to gather such as skin cells into dopamine neurons.

Tapping into the cell gatekeeper

The entire study focused on the discovery of p53, which is a transcription factor protein that serves as a cellular gatekeeper.

"We found that p53 tries to maintain the status quo in a cell, it guards against changes from one cell type to another," said senior author Jian Feng. They discovered that p53 halts the conversion of cells into other forms; hence, enabling them to reset the fibroblasts into neurons without much difficulty.

The discovery implies that cells can act as "software systems" if only experts can identify the barriers to change. Knowing the exact transcription factor combinations that turn genes on and off will transform how genes are interpreted. By employing their discoveries, scientists may one day have the ability to create tissues similar to body parts, including brain tissues.

Creating designer dopamine neurons

To produce new dopamine neurons -- the key is timing. Feng said the cells were highly receptive, just before the cells become sensitive to its surroundings or when it is ready to duplicate the genome.

Reducing p53 levels at the right time will pave the way for skin cells to easily turn into dopamine neurons with transcription factor combinations.

"Our method is faster and much more efficient than previously developed ones," said Feng.

In previous techniques, generating 5 percent of dopamine neurons took two weeks. With the UB research, it only took 10 days to produce 60 percent.

The study was published in the journal Nature on Monday, Dec. 7. 

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