To scientists' delight, the nerve cells that were generated showed the same functional characteristics as the mature cells found in the body.
By studying how nerves form in developing tadpoles, researchers from the University of Cambridge were able to identify ways to speed up the cellular processes by which human nerve cells mature.
"When you reprogram cells, you are essentially converting them from one form to another but often the cells you end up with look like they come from embryos rather than looking and acting like more mature adult cells," explained Dr. Anna Philpott from the department of oncology at the University of Cambridge.
"In order to increase our understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's, we need to be able to work with cells that look and behave like those you would see in older individuals who have developed the disease, so producing more 'adult' cells after reprogramming is really important," Philpott added.
Stem cells can develop into almost any cell type within the body.
Within a stem cell, there are mechanisms that tell it when to divide, and when to stop dividing and transform into another cell type, a process known as cell differentiation.
A group of proteins known as transcription factors, which are found in many tissues throughout the body, regulate both mechanisms.
By manipulating the signals which transcription factors send to the cells, Philpott was able to promote cell differentiation and maturation.
The researchers found they could produce nerve cells that were significantly more mature, and therefore more useful as models for diseases such as Alzheimer's.
Eventually, the technique could also be used to generate mature nerve cells for transplantation into patients with a range of neurodegenerative diseases.
The findings were reported in the journal Development.