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Reprogramming brain cells may help Parkinson’s

Cells similar to dopamine neurons can be induced by treating non-neuronal brain cells with a specific combination of DNA transcription factors, according to a study published in Nature Biotechnology. The new reprogramming method has been demonstrated both in cultured human cells and in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease. A defining feature of Parkinson’s disease is the progressive death of a specific group of neurons that secrete dopamine. Although several treatments are available to patients, including the chemical precursor of dopamine, none change the course of the disease. A decades-long research effort has sought to develop a disease-modifying therapy in which dopamine neurons or their precursors would be generated in the laboratory and transplanted into the brain. The authors of this study described a different approach to cell replacement that does not require cell transplantation. By testing a number of genes known to be important for dopamine neuron identity, they identified three transcription factors and a microRNA that reprogrammed human brain cells called astrocytes as cells that resemble dopamine neurons. The authors used a toxin to kill dopamine neurons in mice and then delivered the genes for the four factors to the brain using a system designed to express the genes only in astrocytes. Some astrocytes were successfully reprogrammed,…