Jun 142012

Skin is the largest organ of the human body, and whilst we may look at ourselves in the mirror everyday, few of us realise the amazing biology that lies just below the surface.  Next to each tiny hair resides a small bundle of skin stem cells.  For the first time, RNG researchers have developed a three-step protocol that harnesses the extraordinary potential of these skin stem cells, allowing for efficient generation of neurons without genetic manipulation. We call these cells ‘SKINPs’: SKin-derived Neural Precursors.

A small skin biopsy contains several million cells, yet only a small percentage of these are the elusive cell of interest.  The first challenge was therefore to develop an efficient protocol for isolating these cells from adult dog skin. Our solution can be seen in the movie. By first placing skin cells in a special growth solution, we isolate rapidly dividing cells as neurospheres. Next, after the neurospheres  have grown to an adequate size we disperse the individual cells and allow them to grow on a flat surface for several population doublings. This combined process enables us to achieve an extremely uniform cell population.

Third and finally, when SKINPs are placed in standard neuronal cell culture conditions an amazing transformation occurs! SKINPs change from a simple bipolar cell to much more complex structures that appear to make connection with nearby cells (see movie). What’s more, at the end of 50 days in culture, SKINP cells express a protein called beta-tubulin that is exclusive to neurons (see figure below).

Canine SKINP after 28 days of differentiation. Green labels for beta-tubulin, a neuronal protein.

Overall, we have been extremely successfully in generating neuronal-looking cells from SKINPs.  The final hurdle is to determine whether these cells are indeed behaving like a neuron.  Are they electrically active? Are they capable of communicating with other cells?  Will they integrate into a host brain after transplantation? RNG research is focused on answering these very questions.

We hope that SKINPs will play a part in the future development of cell replacement therapies… perhaps the answer is just below the surface.

For more information contact Dr Tom Duncan, Head of Stem cell studies.