Science Briefs

April 21, 2013 

Skin cells morphed into brain cells

Researchers at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine have discovered a technique that directly converts skin cells to the type of brain cells destroyed in patients with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and other so-called myelin disorders. This discovery appeared in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

This breakthrough enables “on demand” production of myelinating cells, which provide a vital sheath of insulation that protects neurons and enables the delivery of brain impulses to the rest of the body.

In patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy (CP), and rare genetic disorders called leukodystrophies, myelinating cells are destroyed and cannot be replaced.

The new technique involves directly converting fibroblasts – an abundant structural cell present in the skin and most organs – into oligodendrocytes, the type of cell responsible for myelinating the neurons of the brain.

“It’s ‘cellular alchemy,’ ” said Paul Tesar, assistant professor of genetics and genome sciences at CWRSM and senior author of the study. “We are taking a readily accessible and abundant cell and completely switching its identity to become a highly valuable cell for therapy.” eurekalert.org

New use for recycled sulfur: Batteries for electric cars

A new chemical process can transform waste sulfur into a lightweight plastic that may improve batteries for electric cars, reports a University of Arizona-led team.

The new plastic has other potential uses, including optical. The team has successfully used the new plastic to make lithium-sulfur batteries.

“We’ve developed a new, simple and useful chemical process to convert sulfur into a useful plastic,” lead researcher Jeffrey Pyun said.

Next-generation lithium-sulfur (Li-S) batteries will be better for electric and hybrid cars and for military uses because they are more efficient, lighter and cheaper than those currently used, said Pyun, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona.

The new plastic has great promise as something that can be produced easily and inexpensively on an industrial scale, he said. The team’s discovery could provide a new use for the sulfur left over when oil and natural gas are refined into cleaner-burning fuels. eurekalert.org

Ice used to kill cancerous tumors

Frozen balls of ice can safely kill cancerous tumors that have spread to the lungs, according to the first prospective multicenter trial of cryoablation.

“Cryoablation has potential as a treatment for cancer that has spread to the lungs from other parts of the body and could prolong the lives of patients who are running out of options,” said Dr. David Woodrum, an author of the study and interventional radiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“We may not be able to cure the cancer, but with cryoablation we can at least slow it down significantly and allow patients to enjoy greater quality of life longer.”

Metastatic lung disease is difficult to treat.

In the initial results of the study, 22 subjects with a total of 36 tumors were treated with 27 cryoablation sessions. Cryoablation was 100 percent effective in killing those tumors at three-month follow-up. Follow-up at six months on five of the 22 patients (23 percent) showed the treated tumors to still be dead. Society of Interventional Radiology, via eurekalert.org

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