IMPROVED treatments for schizophrenia and motor neurone disease could be available within two decades thanks to Scottish experiments using a new type of stem cell.
In what was recognised as a major breakthrough, the scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep are now using stem cells first harvested from human skin less than a year ago. These have the same qualities as those controversially taken from embryos
And already work has started in Edinburgh to use cells donated by patients at the Western General Hospital to try to find new treatments for diseases of the nervous system.
The work, which was described yesterday at a conference organised by the Scottish Stem Cell Network, has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of little-understood diseases such as schizophrenia and motor neurone disease, according to Sir Ian Wilmut, who chaired the conference
Speaking to The Scotsman, the scientist, famous for Dolly the sheep, said he thinks the team in Edinburgh could have a breakthrough within years.
He said: "There's the possibility that in maybe ten years, or 20 years, there will be much more effective treatments for these diseases because of these skin cells."
The team of scientists, led by professor David Porteous at the University of Edinburgh, are working with cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells. Like embryonic stem cells, they can turn into any cell in the body – from skin to heart, liver and nerve.
However, they do not attract the same controversy as embryonic stem cells, as they do not involve the destruction of a human embryo. They can also be harvested more easily – requiring just a skin sample.
Due to their ability to transform into any cell in the body, the stem cells taken from the skin of patients at the Western General can be used to make a sample of nerve cells equivalent to those in the person who has the disease.
As the researchers spot what is wrong with these nerve cells, they will be able to make informed guesses as to the type of drugs that could treat them.
"For the first time, people will have in the laboratory large numbers of nerves to study and test for drugs," said Sir Ian.
He thinks the potential to use induced pluripotent stem cells to discover new treatments makes them hugely important – more so even than his famous success in creating cloned Dolly.
He said the cells have the potential to "revolutionise" the development of drugs to treat disease.
Around the world, similar experiments are using induced pluripotent stem cells to find cures for other conditions, including a team in London looking at Parkinson's disease.
But Professor Hans Schoeler, from Germany, who also spoke at the conference, told The Scotsman the stage has not yet been reached where pluripotent stem cells can replace embryonic stem cells.