U.S. scientists transform lower-body cells into facial cartilage

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In new experiments using bird embryos, U.S. scientists have successfully converted cells of the lower-body region into facial tissue that makes cartilage.

The researchers of the California Institute of Technology discovered a "gene circuit", composed of just three genes, that can alter the fate of cells destined for the lower bodies of birds, turning them instead into cells that produce cartilage and bones in the head.

Reporting in the latest issue of the journal Science, published on June 24, the researchers say the results could eventually lead to therapies for conditions where facial bone or cartilage is lost. For example, cartilage destroyed in the nose due to cancer is particularly hard to replace.

According to the study, understanding the genetic pathways that lead to the development of facial cartilage may help in future stem-cell therapies, where a patient's own skin cells could be transformed and used to repair the nose.

"When facial cartilage and bone is lost, from cancer or an accident, it has been difficult to replace," Marianne Bronner, the Albert Billings Ruddock Professor of Biology at Caltech, and senior author of the Science report said in a statement.

Other researchers may also use this information for future experiments in cell culture. The Caltech scientists believe that by adding the new-found gene circuit, perhaps with other known factors, to skin cells in a petri dish it may be possible to turn them into cartilage-producing cells, which is a key next step in creating future therapies for facial bone and cartilage loss.

"Our long term hope is that uncovering this gene circuit may be useful in reprogramming a patient' s own stem cells to make facial cartilage," Bronner said. Endit

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