Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week.
Watching brain cells in real time
Our stem cell photo of the week is brought to you by the Khakh lab at UCLA Health. The lab developed a new method that allows scientists to watch brain cells interact in real time. Using a technique called fluorescence resonance energy-transfer (FRET) microscopy, the team can visualize how astrocytes (key support cells in our central nervous system) and brain cells called neurons form connections in the mouse brain and how these connections are affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS.
Baljit Khakh, the study’s first author, explained the importance of their findings in a news release:
“This new tool makes possible experiments that we have been wanting to perform for many years. For example, we can now observe how brain damage alters the way that astrocytes interact with neurons and develop strategies to address these changes.”
The study was published this week in the journal Neuron.
Turn up the power: How to build a better heart cell (Todd Dubnicoff)
For years now, researchers have had the know-how to reprogram a donor’s skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and then specialize them into heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes. The intervening years have focused on optimizing this method to accurately model the biology of the adult human heart as a means to test drug toxicity and ultimately develop therapies for heart disease. Reporting this week in Nature, scientists at Columbia University report an important step toward those goals.
The muscle contractions of a beating heart occur through natural electrical impulses generated by pacemaker cells. In the case of lab-grown cardiomyocytes, introducing mechanical and electrical stimulation is required to reliably generate these cells. In the current study, the research team showed that the timing and amount of stimulation is a critical aspect to the procedure.
The team tested three scenarios on iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes (iPSC-CMs): no electrical stimulation for 3 weeks, constant stimulation for 3 weeks, and finally, two weeks of increasingly higher stimulation followed by a week of constant stimulation. This third setup mimics the changes that occur in a baby’s heart just before and just after birth.
These scenarios were tested in 12 day-old and 28 day-old iPSC-CMs. The results show that only the 12 day-old cells subjected to the increasing amounts of stimulation gave rise to fully mature heart muscle cells. On top of that, it only took four weeks to make those cells. Seila Selimovic, Ph.D., an expert at the National Institutes of Health who was not involved in the study, explained the importance of these findings in a press release:
“The resulting engineered tissue is truly unprecedented in its similarity to functioning human tissue. The ability to develop mature cardiac tissue in such a short time is an important step in moving us closer to having reliable human tissue models for drug testing.”
Yes we do, no we don’t. More confusion over growing new brain cells as we grow older (Kevin McCormack)
First we didn’t, then we did, then we didn’t again, now we do again. Or maybe we do again.
The debate over whether we are able to continue making new neurons as we get older took another twist this week. Scientists at Columbia University said their research shows we do make new neurons in our brain, even as we age.
In the study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the researchers examined the brains of 28 deceased donors aged 14 to 79. They found similar numbers of precursor and immature neurons in all the brains, suggesting we continue to develop new brain cells as we age.
This contrasts with a UCSF study published just last month which came to the opposite conclusion, that there was no evidence we make new brain cells as we age.
In an interview in the LA Times, Dr. Maura Boldrini, the lead author on the new study, says they looked at a whole section of the brain rather than the thin tissues slices the UCSF team used:
“In science, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If you can’t find something it doesn’t mean that it is not there 100%.”
Well, that resolves that debate. At least until the next study.