Our 2021-22 Annual Report is now online. It’s filled with information about the work we have done over the last year (we are on a fiscal calendar year from July 1 – June 30), the people who have helped us do that work, and some of the people who have benefited from that work. One of those is Dr. Alysson Muotri, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
For Dr. Alysson Muotri, trying to unlock the secrets of the brain isn’t just a matter of scientific curiosity, it’s personal. He has a son with autism and Dr. Muotri is looking for ways to help him, and millions of others like him around the world.
He created the Tooth Fairy project where parents donated more than 3,000 baby teeth from children with autism and children who are developing normally. Dr. Muotri then turned cells from those teeth into neurons, the kind of brain cell affected by autism. He is using those cells to try and identify how the brain of a child with autism differs from a child who is developing normally.
“We’ve been using cells from this population to see what are the alterations (in the gene) and if we can revert them back to a normal state. If you know the gene that is affected, and autism has a strong genetic component, by genome sequencing you can actually find what are the genes that are affected and in some cases there are good candidates for gene therapy. So, you just put the gene back. And we can see that in the lab where we are correcting the gene that is mutated, the networks start to function in a way that is more neurotypical or normal. We see that as highly promising, there’s a huge potential here to help those individuals.”
He is also creating brain organoids, three-dimensional structures created from stem cells that mimic some of the actions and activities of the brain. Because these are made from human cells, not mice or other animals, they may be better at indicating if new therapies have any potential risks for people.
“We can test drugs in the brain organoids of the person and see if it works, see if there’s any toxicity before you actually give the drug to a person, and it will save us time and money and will increase our knowledge about the human brain.”
He says he still gets excited seeing how these cells work. “It’s amazing, it’s a miracle. Every time I see it, it’s like seeing dolphins in the sea because it’s so beautiful.”
Dr. Muotri is also a big proponent of diversity, equity and inclusion in scientific research. He says in the past it was very much a top-down model with scientists deciding what was important. He says we need to change that and give patients and communities a bigger role in shaping the direction of research.
“I think this is something we scientists have to learn, how to incorporate patients in our research. These communities are the ones we are studying, and we need to know what they want and not assume that what we want is what they want. They should be consulted on our grants, and they should participate in the design of our experiments. That is the future.”