Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Major Stem Cell Research Breakthrough Announced

Major Stem Cell Research Breakthrough Announced


Scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh and Milan have made a major breakthrough in tackling neurological conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.


They are the first in the world to develop a new technique to grow pure brain stem cells helping to discover more about these diseases. The research is published online this week, in open-access journal PLoS Biology.

In the body, stem cells divide to produce both copies of themselves and other, more specialised, cell types. Until now, scientists had not been able to sustain the ability of neural stem cells to produce copies of themselves when grown in a dish. This meant that the population of cells in the dish would always become mixed, with only a few stem cells and many more specialized cells. By changing the growth conditions for the cells, the Edinburgh and Milan labs have for the first time established pure stem cell divisions, thus avoiding the unwanted differentiated cells.

Says researcher Luciano Conti: “We applied techniques developed to control the behaviour of embryonic stem cells to our neural stem cells. The knowledge we already have about embryonic stem cells helped us to understand and control these more specialized stem cells.” The scientists have replicated their initial findings with mouse cells, using human stem cells.

The research teams made different cell types of the nervous system from the neural stem cells. All were in perfect working order, suggesting that the neural stem cells can be used to generate, and study in detail, the cells that are affected in neurodegenerative disorders, like Huntington's and Parkinson's disease. Researchers will then be able to study the cellular and molecular processes that go wrong in disease - a crucial first step in developing effective, safe therapies.

Drugs that are being developed to interfere with the onset and/or progression of the disease may now be tested on the neural stem cells, or on specific cell types made from them. Such an approach will reduce the number of animals used in this type of research.

The researchers also feel that their work may be a step in the right direction for using stem cells to replace damaged tissue. “The purity of the cells, and the fact that they do not make tumours, means they should be valuable for studying the potential of transplantation to repair damage,” says Steve Pollard, one of the Edinburgh researchers.

Professor Austin Smith, leading the Edinburgh team, believes that sharing information and knowledge is critical to take stem cell research forward. “Collaboration with our colleagues in Milan, through the EuroStemCell project, made our breakthrough possible. We have published in an open-access journal and included comprehensive practical protocols so that other researchers can replicate and advance this work.”

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