A new stem cell derived tool for studying brain diseases

Sergiu Pasca’s three-dimensional culture makes it possible to watch how three different brain-cell types – oligodendrocytes (green), neurons (magenta) and astrocytes (blue) – interact in a dish as they do in a developing human  brain.
Courtesy of the Pasca lab

Neurological diseases are among the most daunting diagnoses for a patient to receive, because they impact how the individual interacts with their surroundings. Central to our ability to provide better treatment options for these patients, is scientists’ capability to understand the biological factors that influence disease development and progression. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have made an important step in providing neuroscientists a better tool to understand the brain.

While animal models are excellent systems to study the intricacies of different diseases, the ability to translate any findings to humans is relatively limited. The next best option is to study human stem cell derived tissues in the laboratory. The problem with the currently available laboratory-derived systems for studying the brain, however, is the limited longevity and diversity of neuronal cell types. Dr. Sergiu Pasca’s team was able to overcome these hurdles, as detailed in their study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

A new approach

Specifically, Dr. Pasca’s group developed a method to differentiate or transform skin derived human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs – which are capable of becoming any cell type) into brain-like structures that mimic how oligodendrocytes mature during brain development. Oligodendrocytes are most well known for their role in myelinating neurons, in effect creating a protective sheath around the cell to protect its ability to communicate with other brain cells. Studying oligodendrocytes in culture systems is challenging because they arise later in brain development, and it is difficult to generate and maintain them with other cell types found in the brain.

These scientists circumvented this problem by using a unique combination of growth factors and nutrients to culture the oligodendrocytes, and found that they behaved very similarly to oligodendrocytes isolated from humans. Most excitingly, they observed that the stem cell-derived oligodendrocytes were able to myelinate other neurons in the culture system. Therefore they were both physically and functionally similar to human oligodendrocytes.

Importantly, the scientists were also able to generate astrocytes alongside the oligodendrocytes. Astrocytes perform many important functions such as providing essential nutrients and directing the electrical signals that help cells in the brain communicate with each other. In a press release, Dr. Pasca explains the importance of generating multiple cell types in this in vitro system:

“We now have multiple cell types interacting in one single culture. This permits us to look close-up at how the main cellular players in the human brain are talking to each other.”

This in vitro or laboratory-developed system has the potential to help scientists better understand oligodendrocytes in the context of diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, both of which stem from improper myelination of brain nerve cells.

This work was partially supported by a CIRM grant.

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