Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed a faster method to generate functional brain cells, called astrocytes, from embryonic stem cells.
Astrocytes play a significant role in neurodegenerative diseases. The new method reduces the time required to produce the cells from months to two weeks. Even though the presence in our brain of the star-shaped glial cells, known as astrocytes, has been known for a long time, it has only recently been discovered how significant these brain cells actually are. Instead of only having a support function, as previously thought, the cells play an important role in the normal brain and in conditions such as dementia diseases and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
One challenge that researchers have faced is the difficulty in obtaining human astrocytes to study. There are ways to grow astrocytes in the lab, but it has taken a long time and proved difficult, expensive and complicated. The astrocytes produced from the embryonic stem cells are very similar to the astrocytes in the brain of adult humans, in terms of appearance, genetic profile and function.
The cells’ use in studying diseases of the brain has been shown by the research team through employing CRISPR-Cas9, popularly known as gene editing, to insert a mutation in the embryonic stem cells that gives rise to the serious brain condition Alexander disease. When the researchers compared the astrocytes, it was shown 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”, said Henrik Ahlenius, the research team leader.
The research team’s main focus is studying age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, and the next step will be to use the method to examine the significance of astrocytes in these diseases.