A PhD student at the University of Luxembourg is researching a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases by converting diseased brain cells into healthy tissue.

Everyone wants to have a healthy mind for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are still very difficult to treat.

The main cause of these diseases is the gradual disappearance of healthy tissue, against which researchers are still looking for a treatment.

Mariana Ribeiro, a PhD student at the University of Luxembourg, is studying the possibility of converting diseased brain cells into healthy neurons (nerve cells) by reprogramming them. This would be an important step towards treating and perhaps even curing the diseases affecting one of our major organs.

The aim is to recover diseased or lost tissue

Neurons are brain cells that transport all kinds of information in the brain. Astrocytes are cells that regulate and maintain these neurons. If astrocytes no longer function properly, the surrounding neurons are disturbed or die. This causes the typical symptoms such as memory loss or movement disorders as we know them from Alzheimer's or Parkinson's patients.

The aim of Mariana's doctoral thesis is to transform damaged astrocytes into healthy neurons. She explains this in a short video that she submitted for the "3 Minute Thesis" competition organised by the LuxDoc student association in Luxembourg.

How one cell type can be transformed into another

Put simply, you can convert one type of cell into another by "switching on" the genes specific to the type of cell you want to obtain. In this case, Mariana wants to activate specific neuron genes in astrocytes to convert them. This cell conversation is achieved by means of a protein that can be injected directly into the diseased tissue and activates the genes. Initial animal experiments using this method are showing promising results.

Not only neurodegenerative diseases

This mechanism of cell transformation is also being researched for the treatment of other diseases, such as spinal cord injury or cardiovascular disease. This would make it possible to treat many diseases better than is currently the case.

Author: Lucie Zeches

Editor: Michèle Weber (FNR)