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.

Stanford Scientist Sergiu Pasca Receives Prestigious Vilcek Prize for Stem Cell Research on Neuropsychiatric Disorders

Sergiu Pasca, Stanford University

Last month, we blogged about Stanford neuroscientist Sergiu Pasca and his interesting research using stem cells to model the human brain in 3D. This month we bring you an exciting update about Dr. Pasca and his work.

On February 1st, Pasca was awarded one of the 2018 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the important contributions made by immigrants to American arts and sciences.

Pasca was born in Romania and got his medical degree there before moving to the US to pursue research at Stanford University in 2009. He is now an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and has dedicated his lab’s research to understanding human brain development and neuropsychiatric disorders using 3D brain organoid cultures derived from pluripotent stem cells.

The Vilcek Foundation produced a fascinating video (below) featuring Pasca’s life journey and his current CIRM-funded research on Timothy Syndrome – a rare form of autism. In the video, Pasca describes how his lab’s insights into this rare psychiatric disorder will hopefully shed light on other neurological diseases. He shares his hope that his research will yield something that translates to the clinic.

The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science comes with a $50,000 cash award. Pasca along with the other prize winners will be honored at a gala event in New York City in April 2018.

You can read more about Pasca’s prize winning research on the Vilcek website and in past CIRM blogs below.

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Modeling the Human Brain in 3D

(Image from Pasca Lab, Stanford University)

Can you guess what the tiny white balls are in this photo? I’ll give you a hint, they represent the organ that you’re using right now to answer my question.

These are 3D brain organoids generated from human pluripotent stem cells growing in a culture dish. You can think of them as miniature models of the human brain, containing many of the brain’s various cell types, structures, and regions.

Scientists are using brain organoids to study the development of the human nervous system and also to model neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders. These structures allow scientists to dissect the inner workings of the brain – something they can’t do with living patients.


Dr. Sergiu Pasca is a professor at Stanford University who is using 3D cultures to understand human brain development. Pasca and his lab have previously published methods to make different types of brain organoids from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that recapitulate human brain developmental events in a dish.

Sergiu Pasca, Stanford University (Image credit: Steve Fisch)

My colleague, Todd Dubnicoff, blogged about Pasca’s research last year:

“Using brain tissue grown from patient-derived iPSCs, Dr. Sergiu Pasca and his team recreated the types of nerve cell circuits that form during the late stages of pregnancy in the fetal cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain that is responsible for functions including memory, language and emotion. With this system, they observed irregularities in the assembly of brain circuitry that provide new insights into the cellular and molecular causes of neuropsychiatric disorders like autism.”

Pasca generated brain organoids from the iPSCs of patients with a genetic disease called Timothy Syndrome – a condition that causes heart problems and some symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in children. By comparing the nerve cell circuits in patient versus healthy brain organoids, he observed a disruption in the migration of nerve cells in the organoids derived from Timothy Syndrome iPSCs.

“We’ve never been able to recapitulate these human-brain developmental events in a dish before,” said Pasca in a press release, “the process happens in the second half of pregnancy, so viewing it live is challenging. Our method lets us see the entire movie, not just snapshots.”

The Rise of 3D Brain Cultures

Pasca’s lab is just one of many that are working with 3D brain culture technologies to study human development and disease. These technologies are rising in popularity amongst scientists because they make it possible to study human brain tissue in normal and abnormal conditions. Brain organoids have also appeared in the mainstream news as novel tools to study how epidemics like the Zika virus outbreak affect the developing fetal brain (more here and here).

While these advances are exciting and promising, the field is still in its early stages and the 3D organoid models are far from perfect at representing the complex biology of the human brain.

Pasca addresses the progress and the hurdles of 3D brain cultures in a review article titled “The rise of three-dimensional brain cultures” published this week in the journal Nature. The article, describes in detail how pluripotent stem cells can assemble into structures that represent different regions of the human brain allowing scientists to observe how cells interact within neural circuits and how these circuits are disrupted by disease.

The review goes on to compare different approaches for creating 3D brain cultures (see figure below) and their different applications. For instance, scientists are culturing organoids on microchips (brains-on-a-chip) to model the blood-brain barrier – the membrane structure that protects the brain from circulating pathogens in the blood but also makes drug delivery to brain very challenging. Brain organoids are also being used to screen for new drugs and to model complex diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Human pluripotent stem cells, adult stem cells or cancer cells  can be used to derive microfluidics-based organs-on-a-chip (top), undirected organoids (middle), and region-specific brain organoids or organ spheroids (bottom). These 3D cultures can be manipulated with CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technologies, transplanted into animals or used for drug screening. (Pasca, Nature)

Pasca ends the review by identifying the major hurdles facing 3D brain culture technologies. He argues that “3D cultures only approximate the appearance and architecture of neural tissue” and that the cells and structures within these organoids are not always predictable. These issues can be address over time by enforcing quality control in how these 3D cultures are made and by using new biomaterials that enable the expansion and maturation of these cultures.

Nonetheless, Pasca believes that 3D brain cultures combined with advancing technologies to study them have “the potential to give rise to novel features for studying human brain development and disease.”

He concludes the review with a cautiously optimistic outlook:

“This is an exciting new field and as with many technologies, it may follow a ‘hype’ cycle in which we overestimate its effects in the short run and underestimate its effects in the long run. A better understanding of the complexity of this platform, and bringing interdisciplinary approaches will accelerate our progress up a ‘slope of enlightenment’ and into the ‘plateau of productivity’.”

3D brain culture from the Pasca Lab, Stanford University

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Stem cell-derived, 3D brain tissue reveals autism insights

Studying human brain disorders is one of the most challenging fields in biomedical research. Besides the fact that the brain is incredibly complex, it’s just plain difficult to peer into it.

It’s neither practical nor ethical to access the cells of the adult brain. Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist.

For one thing, it’s not practical, let alone ethical, to drill into an affected person’s skull and collect brain cells to learn about their disease. Another issue is that the faulty cellular and molecular events that cause brain disorders are, in many cases, thought to trace back to fetal brain development before a person is even born. So, just like a detective looking for evidence at the scene of a crime, neurobiologists can only piece together clues after the disease has already occurred.

The good news is these limitations are falling away thanks to human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are generated from an individual’s easily accessible skin cells. Last week’s CIRM-funded research report out of Stanford University is a great example of how this method is providing new human brain insights.

Using brain tissue grown from patient-derived iPSCs, Dr. Sergiu Pasca and his team recreated the types of nerve cell circuits that form during the late stages of pregnancy in the fetal cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain that is responsible for functions including memory, language and emotion. With this system, they observed irregularities in the assembly of brain circuitry that provide new insights into the cellular and molecular causes of neuropsychiatric disorders like autism.

Recreating interactions between different regions of the development from skin-derived iPSCs
Image: Sergui Pasca Lab, Stanford University

Holy Brain Balls! Recreating the regions of our brain with skin cells
Two years ago, Pasca’s group figured out a way grow iPSCs into tiny, three-dimensional balls of cells that mimic the anatomy of the cerebral cortex. The team showed that these brain spheres contain the expected type of nerve cells, or neurons, as well as other cells that support neuron function.

Still, the complete formation of the cortex’s neuron circuits requires connections with another type of neuron that lies in a separate region of the brain. These other neurons travel large distances in a developing fetus’ brain over several months to reach the cortical cortex. Once in place, these migrating neurons have an inhibitory role and can block the cortical cortex nerve signals. Turning off a nerve signal is just as important as turning one on. In fact, imbalances in these opposing on and off nerve signals are suspected to play a role in epilepsy and autism.

So, in the current Nature study, Pasca’s team devised two different iPSC-derived brain sphere recipes: one that mimics the neurons found in the cortical cortex and another that mimics the region that contains the inhibitory neurons. Then the researchers placed the two types of spheres in the same lab dish and within three days, they spontaneously fused together.

Under video microscopy, the migration of the inhibitory neurons into the cortical cortex was observed. In cells derived from healthy donors, the migration pattern of inhibitory neurons looked like a herky-jerkey car being driven by a student driver: the neurons would move toward the cortical cortex sphere but suddenly stop for a while and then start their migration again.

“We’ve never been able to recapitulate these human-brain developmental events in a dish before,” said Pasca in a press release, “the process happens in the second half of pregnancy, so viewing it live is challenging. Our method lets us see the entire movie, not just snapshots.”

New insights into Timothy Syndrome may also uncover molecular basis of autism
To study the migration of the inhibitory neurons in the context of a neuropsychiatric disease, iPSCs were generated from skin samples of patients with Timothy syndrome, a rare genetic disease which carries a wide-range of symptoms including autism as well as heart defects.

The formation of brain spheres from the patient-derived iPSCs proceeded normally. But the next part of the experiment revealed an abnormal migration pattern of the neurons.  The microscopy movies showed that the start and stop behavior of neurons happened more frequently but the speed of the migration slowed. The fascinating video below shows the differences in the migration patterns of a healthy (top) versus a Timothy sydrome-derived neuron (bottom). The end result was a disruption of the typically well-organized neuron circuitry.

Now, the gene that’s mutated in Timothy Syndrome is responsible for the production of a protein that helps shuttle calcium in and out of neurons. The flow of calcium is critical for many cell functions and adding drugs that slow down this calcium flux restored the migration pattern of the neurons. So, the researchers can now zero in their studies on this direct link between the disease-causing mutation and a specific breakdown in neuron function.

The exciting possibility is that, because this system is generated from a patient’s skin cells, experiments could be run to precisely understand each individual’s neuropsychiatric disorder. Pasca is eager to see what new insights lie ahead:

“Our method of assembling and carefully characterizing neuronal circuits in a dish is opening up new windows through which we can view the normal development of the fetal human brain. More importantly, it will help us see how this goes awry in individual patients.”