Scientists say they have proved the viability of a new way to study diseases using a patient’s own cells. Yesterday, a team from Harvard and Columbia universities announced that they have generated a population of motor neurons–nerve cells that control muscle movement–from the skin cells of an 82-year-old woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Such cells provide a way to take ALS studies “out of the patient and into the petri dish,” Harvard biologist Kevin Eggan said at a press conference.
For many illnesses, researchers would like to study the diseased cells from a patient in the lab; their ultimate hope is that they can also fix those cells by modifying them genetically and then inject them back into the patient. Until recently, scientists believed the way to do this would be through therapeutic cloning, a controversial technique–still unproven for humans–that involves putting the nucleus from a body cell into an enucleated egg. The resulting cells can then be coaxed to differentiate into any bodily tissue type.