By Joe Fenn
Sixteen years ago, when scientists at Edinburgh University announced they had successfully cloned a mammal for the first time, the hopes for the advancements this could make in world medicine drew attention from around the world.
Dolly the Sheep provided a vital step towards a new generation of medicines, the benefits of which could help a whole range of diseases.
Now, scientists at the same laboratories in Edinburgh have made another remarkable step in their work. Using technology developed from working with Dolly, they have managed to create brain tissue from patients suffering from a range of neurological diseases.
This tissue can then be used as a basis of study to find out more about the diseases and work towards new medicines.
The new technology allows scientists to take a skin sample from a patient and then make stem cells from this sample. The stem cells can then be grown into brain cells that are genetically identical to those in the patient’s brain.
The work is focused on patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease, with work also looking at schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The new technology allows cells from the brains of these patients to be grown in laboratories and studied.
Previously, these cells had been inaccessible until after the patient had died and could only be studied after an autopsy.
However, this meant that the cells would bear the effects of whatever it was that killed the patients and also any medication that the patient had been taking, sometimes for years or decades.
Edinburgh scientist Professor Andrew MacIntosh explained that “having access to living cells is a significant development for the development of drugs for these conditions.”
This research will provide potential for new medicines. In the case of multiple sclerosis, the previous problem had been that it was very difficult to predict how a patient would progress.
Some patients would deteriorate rapidly, whereas some would manage to repair the damage caused to their brain and live happily for many years.
Now laboratories can recreate oligodendrocytes (the cells affected by MS) from patients who have been affected differently by the disease and see if there is any clear reason for the differences.
If the reason for the difference can be found, there is the possibility of a whole new range of drugs to help those affected by MS.
Director of the Edinburgh centre, Professor Charles ffrench-Constant, said, “it’s only a hypothesis, but it is a very attractive one.”
Stem cell research has advanced medical science hugely.
“It has so much to offer,” said ffrench-Constant, “not just in the area of creating new material for transplants, but in areas such as making models of diseases, which should then allow you, hopefully, to develop all sorts of new treatments for a condition.”
The research into further applications for stem cells in brain disorders continues in Edinburgh.