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Keywords:

  • Adult stem cell;
  • stem cell plasticity;
  • neurons;
  • cell-based therapy

The classic concept of stem cell differentiation can be illustrated as driving into a series of one-way streets, where a given stem cell through generations of daughter cells becomes correspondingly restricted and committed towards a definitive lineage with fully differentiated cells as end points. According to this concept, tissue-derived adult stem cells can only give rise to cells and cell lineages found in the natural, specified tissue of residence. During the last few years it has, however, been reported that under certain experimental conditions adult stem cells may lose their tissue or germ layer-specific phenotypes and become reprogrammed to transdifferentiate into cells of other germ layers and tissues. The transdifferentiation process is referred to as “stem cell plasticity”. Mesenchymal stem cells, present in various tissues, including bone marrow, have – besides differentiation into bone, cartilage, smooth muscle and skeletal muscle – also been reported to transdifferentiate into skin, liver and brain cells (neurons and glia). Conversely, neural stem cells have been reported to give rise to blood cells. The actual occurrence of transdifferentiation is currently much debated, but would have immense clinical potential in cell replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. Controlled neural differentiation of human mesenchymal stem cells might thus become an important source of cells for cell therapy of neurodegenerative diseases, since autologous adult mesenchymal stem cells are more easily harvested and effectively expanded than corresponding neural stem cells. This article provides a critical review of the reports of neural transdifferentiation of mesenchymal stem cells, and proposes a set of criteria to be fulfilled for validation of transdifferentiation.