Like a sophisticated security fence, our bodies have evolved a barrier that protects the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood but still allows the entry of essential molecules like blood sugar and oxygen. Just like in other parts of the body, the blood vessels and capillaries in the brain are lined with endothelial cells. But in the brain, these cells form extremely tight connections with each other making it nearly impossible for most things to passively squeeze through the blood vessel wall and into the brain fluid.
Recent studies have shown defects in the brain-blood barrier are associated with neurodegenerative disorders like Huntington’s disease and as a result becomes leakier. Although the debilitating symptoms of Huntington’s disease – which include involuntary movements, severe mood swings and difficulty swallowing – are primarily due to the gradual death of specific nerve cells, this breakdown in the blood-brain barrier most likely contributes to the deterioration of the Huntington’s brain.
What hasn’t been clear is if mutations in Huntingtin, the gene that is linked to Huntington’s disease, directly impact the specialized endothelial cells within the blood-brain barrier or if these specialized cells are just innocent bystanders of the destruction that occurs as Huntington’s progresses. It’s an important question to answer. If the mutations in Huntingtin directly affect the blood-brain barrier then it could provide a bigger picture of how this incurable, fatal disease works. More importantly, it may provide new avenues for therapy development.
A UC Irvine research team got to the bottom of this question with the help of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from the skin cells of individuals with Huntington’s disease. Their CIRM-funded study was published this week in Cell Reports.
In a first for a neurodegenerative disease, the researchers coaxed the Huntington’s disease iPSCs in a lab dish to become brain microvascular endothelial cells (BMECs), the specialized cells responsible for forming the blood-brain barrier. The researchers found that the Huntington’s BMECs themselves were indeed dysfunctional. Compared to BMECs derived from unaffected individuals, the Huntington’s BMECs weren’t as good at making new blood vessels, and the vessels they did make were leakier. So the Huntingtin mutation in these BMECs appears to be directly responsible for the faulty blood-brain barrier.
The team dug deeper into this new insight by looking for possible differences in gene activity between the healthy and Huntington’s BMECs. They found that the Wnt group of genes, which plays an important role in the development of the blood-brain barrier, are over active in the Huntington’s BMECs. This altered Wnt activity can explain the leaky defects. In fact, the use of a drug inhibitor of Wnt fixed the defects. Dr. Leslie Thompson, the team lead, described the significance of this finding in a press release:
“Now we know there are internal problems with blood vessels in the brain. This discovery can be used for possible future treatments to seal the leaky blood vessels themselves and to evaluate drug delivery to patients with HD.”
A companion Cell Stem Cell report, also published this week, used the same iPSC-derived blood-brain barrier system. In that study, researchers at Cedars-Sinai pinpointed BMEC defects as the underlying cause of Allan-Herndon-Dudley syndrome, another neurologic condition that causes mental deficits and movement problems. Together these results really drive home the importance of studying the blood-brain barrier function in neurodegenerative disease.
Dr. Ryan Lim, the first author on the UC Irvine study, also points to a larger perspective on the implications of this work:
“These studies together demonstrate the incredible power of iPSCs to help us more fully understand human disease and identify the underlying causes of cellular processes that are altered.”