A team of U.S. scientists has managed, for the first time, to transform an ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) patient's skin cells into motor neurons by using a new technique called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The process of transforming skin cells into motor neurons could be used in the future to treat this autoimmune disease.

The technique was used for the first time last year by scientists from Japan and the United States but the only thing they managed was to transform skin cells of healthy adults.
Researchers from the Columbia-Harvard team managed to do so by using ALS patients' skin cells. It is the first time that skin cells from a chronically-ill patient have been reprogrammed into a stem cell-like state, and then coaxed into the specific cell types that would be needed to understand and treat the disease.

Up until now, the biggest problem with ALS research was the inability to study ALS patient's motor neurons in the laboratory, it was simply impossible to get to them. This has changed now.

Although cell replacement therapies are years away, the researchers showed how they could generate hundreds of millions of motor neurons, genetically identical to a patient's own neurons. This will help to uncover the mechanisms behind the disease and create drugs that can prolong life.
There are, however, safety issues with iPS cells, one of them being a risk of cancer.

Additionally, it is still not known how to reintroduce cells into a sick adult in a way that would be beneficial.
All the obstacles need to get overcome before using the cells to treat disease, but luckily it is possible to start immediately looking for potential drugs.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. The attacks lead to deaths of the neurons, leading further to paralysis of these muscles, including those involved in swallowing and breathing, and ultimately the death of the patient.