Stem cells grow more quickly, efficiently in new method

These astrocytes grown from embryonic stem cells at a Lund University lab in Sweden. A new way to generate functional brain cells can cut the time from months to two weeks. Image by Isaac Canals/Lund

Aug. 23 (UPI) — Researchers have developed a new way to generate functional brain cells that cuts the time from months to two weeks.

The astrocytes, which come from embryonic stem cells, play a significant role in neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia and ALS. The findings by Lund University in Sweden were published Monday in the journal Nature Methods.

“This means that it is now easier than before to study the role of astrocytes in various diseases,” Dr. Henrik Ahlenius, who led the research team at Lund, said in a press release.

Researchers have known about the presence in the brain of the star-shaped glial cells for years but only recently have scientists discovered their significance.

Researchers have faced difficulty in obtaining human astrocytes because it’s a time-consuming, difficult and expensive process.

The researchers determined how to use viruses to activate genes in the embryonic stem cells, which is when astrocytes normally are formed.

“Many researchers have previously used embryonic stem cells to generate astrocytes, but these methods have attempted to mimic the normal development of an embryo’s stem cell when developing an astrocyte in an individual, which requires a time-consuming and complicated approach,” Ahlenius said.

The astrocytes are similar to those in the brain of adult humans in appearance, genetic profile and function.

Researchers have studied diseases by employing the gene-editing CRISPR-Cas9.

A mutation in the embryonic stem cells leads to the serious brain condition Alexander disease. In the new method, healthy and mutated stem cells were transformed into astrocytes.

Comparing the astrocytes, researchers found that cells with the mutation exhibited several defects previously known to be present among those suffering from Alexander disease.

“Using this approach of combining CRISPR-Cas9 and our method to rapidly grow human astrocytes provides improved possibilities to study the role of astrocytes in various neurological diseases,” Ahlenius said.

The researchers next plan to use the method to study the significance of astrocytes in these neurological diseases.


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