Stem cell stories that caught our eye: brains, brains and more brains!

This week we bring you three separate stories about the brain. Two are exciting new advances that use stem cells to understand the brain and the third is plain creepy.

Bioengineering better brains. Lab grown mini-brains got an upgrade thanks to a study published this week in Nature Biotechnology. Mini-brains are tiny 3D organs that harbor similar cell types and structures found in the human brain. They are made from pluripotent stem cells cultured in laboratory bioreactors that allow these cells to mature into brain tissue in the span of a month.

The brain organoid technology was first published back in 2013 by Austrian scientists Jürgen Knoblich and Madeline Lancaster. They used mini-brains to study human brain development and a model a birth defect called microcephaly, which causes abnormally small heads in babies. Mini-brains filled a void for scientists desperate for better, more relevant models of human brain development. But the technology had issues with consistency and produced organoids that varied in size, structure and cell type.

Cross-section of a mini-brain. (Madeline Lancaster/MRC-LMB)

Fast forward four years and the same team of scientists has improved upon their original method by adding a bioengineering technique that will generate more consistent mini-brains. Instead of relying on the stem cells to organize themselves into the proper structures in the brain, the team developed a biological scaffold made of microfilaments that guides the growth and development of stem cells into organoids. They called these “engineered cerebral organoids” or enCORs for short.

In a news feature on IMBA, Jürgen Knoblich explained that enCORs are more reproducible and representative of the brain’s architecture, thus making them more effective models for neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.

“An important hallmark of the bioengineered organoids is their increased surface to volume ratio. Because of their improved tissue architecture, enCORs can allow for the study of a broader array of neurological diseases where neuronal positioning is thought to be affected, including lissencephaly (smooth brain), epilepsy, and even autism and schizophrenia.”

Salk team finds genetic links between brain’s immune cells and neurological disorders. (Todd Dubnicoff)

Dysfunction of brain cells called microglia have been implicated in a wide range of neurologic disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, autism and schizophrenia. But a detailed examination of these cells has proved difficult because they don’t grow well in lab dishes. And attempts to grow microglia from stem cells is hampered by the fact that the cell type hasn’t been characterized enough for researchers to know how to distinguish it from related cell types found in the blood.

By performing an extensive analysis of microglia gene activity, Salk Institute scientists have now pinpointed genetic links between these cells and neurological disease. These discoveries also demonstrate the importance of the microglia’s environment within the brain to maintain its identity. The study results were reported in Science.

Microglia are important immune cells in the brain. They are related to macrophages which are white blood cells that roam through the body via the circulatory system and gobble up damaged or dying cells as well as foreign invaders. Microglia also perform those duties in the brain and use their eating function to trim away faulty or damage nerve connections.

To study a direct source of microglia, the team worked with neurosurgeons to obtain small samples of brain tissue from patients undergoing surgery for epilepsy, a tumor or stroke. Microglia were isolated from healthy regions of brain tissue that were incidentally removed along with damaged or diseased brain tissue.

Salk and UC San Diego scientists conducted a vast survey of microglia (pictured here), revealing links to neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric illnesses. (Image: Nicole Coufal)

A portion of the isolated microglia were immediately processed to take a snap shot of gene activity. The researchers found that hundreds of genes in the microglia had much higher activities compared to those same genes in macrophages. But when the microglia were transferred to petri dishes, gene activity in general dropped. In fact, within six hours of tissue collection, the activity of over 2000 genes in the cells had dropped significantly. This result suggests the microglial rely on signals in the brain to stimulate their gene activity and may explain why they don’t grow well once removed from that environment into lab dishes.

Of the hundreds of genes whose activity were boosted in microglia, the researchers tracked down several that were linked to several neurological disorders. Dr. Nicole Coufal summarized these results and their implications in a Salk press release:

“A really high proportion of genes linked to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia are much more highly expressed in microglia than the rest of the brain. That suggests there’s some kind of link between microglia and the diseases.”

Future studies are needed to explain the exact nature of this link. But with these molecular descriptions of microglia gene activity now in hand, the researchers are in a better position to study microglia’s role in disease.

A stem cell trial to bring back the dead, brain-dead that is. A somewhat creepy stem cell story resurfaced in the news this week. A company called Bioquark in Philadelphia is attempting to bring brain-dead patients back to life by injecting adult stem cells into their spinal cords in combination with other treatments that include protein blend injections, electrical nerve stimulation and laser therapy. The hope is that this combination stem cell therapy will generate new neurons that can reestablish lost connections in the brain and bring it back to life.

Abstract image of a neuron. (Dom Smith/STAT)

You might wonder why the company is trying multiple different treatments simultaneously. In a conversation with STAT news, Bioquark CEO Ira Pastor explained,

“It’s our contention that there’s no single magic bullet for this, so to start with a single magic bullet makes no sense. Hence why we have to take a different approach.”

Bioquark is planning to relaunch a clinical trial testing its combination therapy in Latin America sometime this year. The company previously attempted to launch its first trial in India back in April of 2016, but it never got off the ground because it failed to get clearance from India’s Drug Controller General.

STATnews staff writer Kate Sheridan called the trial “controversial” and raised questions about how it would impact patients and their families.

“How do researchers complete trial paperwork when the person participating is, legally, dead? If the person did regain brain activity, what kind of functional abilities would he or she have? Are families getting their hopes up for an incredibly long-shot cure?”

Scientists also have questions mainly about whether this treatment will actually work or is just a shot in the dark. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Bioquark has no preclinical evidence that its combination treatment is effective in animal models. The STAT piece details how the treatments have been tested individually for other conditions such as stroke and coma, but not in brain-dead patients. To further complicate things, there is no consensus on how to define brain death in patients, so patient improvements observed during the trial could be unrelated to the treatment.

STAT asked expert doctors in the field whether Bioquark’s strategy was feasible. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ed Cooper said that there’s no way electric stimulation would work, pointing out that the technique requires a functioning brain stem which brain-dead patients don’t have. Pediatric surgeon Dr. Charles Cox, who works on a stem cell treatment for traumatic brain injury and is unrelated to Bioquark, commented, “it’s not the absolute craziest thing I’ve ever heard, but I think the probability of that working is next to zero.”

But Pastor seems immune to the skepticism and naysayers.

“I give us a pretty good chance. I just think it’s a matter of putting it all together and getting the right people and the right minds on it.”

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