Sanford-Burnham News Archive

Researchers Hit on Master Switch to Generate Nerve Cells

LA JOLLA, Calif. , June 20, 2000

Scientists at The Burnham Institute have cloned and characterized a human gene known as mef2C that apparently acts as a master switch to control the production of nerve cells in the brain. Published in the June 20th issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this breakthrough should allow scientists to produce nerve cells for a variety of important reasons. Such nerve cells could be used for transplantation into the brain, and for studying how these brain cells develop from birth and how they die due to various insults. Moreover, this technology should facilitate studies aimed at prolonging the life of nerve cells by genetic engineering.

For many years neuroscientists have been searching for the gene that triggers cells in the body to become nerve cells, a process called neurogenesis or neuronal differentiation. Armed with this knowledge, it should become possible to produce large numbers of nerve cells that can then be used to replace damaged cells in the brains of patients who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord or head trauma, or from a neurodgenerative condition such as Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gerhig’s disease, Huntington’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.

The group of scientists making the discovery is led by neurologist Stuart A. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., who is Professor and Director of the Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience and Aging Research at The Burnham Institute. The work was begun by postdoctoral fellows Shu-ichi Okamoto and Dimitri Krainc and technician Katerina Sherman in Dr. Lipton’s laboratory at Harvard Medical School. In September 1999, the group moved to La Jolla as part of the Burnham Institute’s newly established neuroscience center.

When reached for comment, Dr. Lipton stated that he "hopes the new information will facilitate the rapid translation of a basic discovery in science--how to control nerve cell development--into new approaches for clinical treatment of a variety of neurological disorders." He cautioned, "however, although we now have in hand the human gene that seemingly controls nerve cell development, our experiments to date have been performed on mouse cells and need to be repeated on human cells." With the new information in hand, controlling the production of new nerve cells in the human brain is only a matter of time.

This research was supported by funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, Massachusetts Affiliate, Inc. and the San Diego Parkinson Corporation.

This research was supported by funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, Massachusetts Affiliate, Inc. and the San Diego Parkinson Corporation.

About Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute


Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute is dedicated to discovering the fundamental molecular causes of disease and devising the innovative therapies of tomorrow. Sanford-Burnham takes a collaborative approach to medical research with major programs in cancer, neurodegeneration and stem cells, diabetes, and infectious, inflammatory, and childhood diseases. The Institute is recognized for its National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center and expertise in drug discovery technologies. Sanford-Burnham is a nonprofit, independent institute that employs more than 1,000 scientists and staff in San Diego (La Jolla), Calif., and Orlando (Lake Nona), Fla. For more information, visit us at sanfordburnham.org.

Sanford-Burnham can also be found on Facebook at facebook.com/sanfordburnham and on Twitter @sanfordburnham.

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