Brain Cells Grown from Stem Cells

by Gilbert Watson
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Developing Astrocytes

Researchers have found a way to develop functioning brain cells faster. The researchers from Lund University, led by Henrik Ahlenius, call these cells Astrocytes and they are developed from embryonic stem cells. They have significantly reduced the time to generate these cells – which play an important part in neurodegenerative diseases – from months to only two weeks now.

Researchers can now study astrocytes and its part in multiple diseases much easier now. The significance of astrocytes has just been recently discovered despite having known about this type of cell in the brain for a while now. Previously thought to function as support, astrocytes play a significant role in the normal brain and in diseases like ALS and dementia.

Until now, obtaining astrocytes were difficult, complicated and expensive as it took a long time to grow them in labs.

Producing astrocytes from embryonic stem cells were successful but time consuming, prior to Henrik’s process which took one to two weeks to produce functioning human astrocytes.

To simplify, the research team of Henrik Ahlenius used viruses to activate genes in the embryonic stem cell which resulted in rapid formation of astrocytes.

Most of the previous researchers’ methods to form astrocytes used embryonic stem cells to mimic the normal development of astrocytes in an individual. This was a very time consuming and complicated method as per Henrik.

The end product of astrocytes developed from embryonic stem cells are to those in the adult human brain in terms of function, appearance and genetic profile.

Astrocytes for Alexander Disease

The research team used gene editing to insert a mutation in the embryonic stem cell so they can study the serious condition in the brain called Alexander disease.

They created using the new method both mutated and healthy astrocyte cells. The researchers found after comparing the two that the cells with mutation showed several signs found in Alexander disease sufferers.

The main focus of the research team is to study neurodegenerative diseases caused by aging like Alzheimer’s and dementia and what role astrocytes play in these diseases.

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