Skin cells have been converted directly into cells which develop into the main components of the brain, by researchers studying mice in California.
The experiment, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, skipped the middle “stem cell” stage in the process.
The researchers said they were “thrilled” at the potential medical uses.
Far more tests are needed before the technique could be used on human skin.
Stem cells, which can become any other specialist type of cell from brain to bone, are thought to have huge promise in a range of treatments. Many trials are taking place, such as in stroke patients or specific forms of blindness.
One of the big questions for the field is where to get the cells from. There are ethical concerns around embryonic stem cells and patients would need to take immunosuppressant drugs as any stem cell tissue would not match their own.
An alternative method has been to take skin cells and reprogram them into “induced” stem cells. These could be made from a patient’s own cells and then turned into the cell type required, however, the process results in cancer-causing genes being activated.