Using CRISP-Cas9 genetic engineering researchers from Lund University Sweden have developed a faster method for generating astrocytes from embryonic stem cells. In so doing they’ve reduced the amount time required to produce these glial cells from 6 months to only a couple of weeks. The discovery could help test treatments for dementia and alzheimers.
Astrocytes are a type of “glial” cels prevously thought of as “support” cells that wrap around and fortify neurons as well govern blood flow between the blood-brain barrier. Now scientists are discovering that astrocytes play a larger important role – especially in conditions such as dementia and ALS.
“This means that it is now easier than before to study the role of astrocytes in various diseases”, says Henrik Ahlenius, who led the research team.
Astrocytes are difficult and expensive to attain. Scientists currently use embryonic stem cells to produce them in a lab, but it takes a long time. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are also a subject of ethical debate. There is a common misundestanding that ESCs are harvested from a mother wombs. That is not true. Intead, eggs are donated to an in citu fertilization clinic where they are fertilized artificially. Of course that may still be disturbing to some. Whether or not such concerns will continue to stifle manstream acceptance of embryonic stem cell treatment is not yet known.
“Previous methods have succeeded in producing human astrocytes from embryonic stem cells, but it has taken months. Using our method, it takes one to two weeks to produce large amounts of fully functional human astrocytes”, says Henrik Ahlenius.
Researchers used a form of genetic engineering called CRISPR-Cas9 to insert mutations in to the embryonic stem cells, provoking the onset of “Alexander disease’. Since astrocytes are sort of like our brains immune system, similar in some ways to white blood cells, ESCs responded by quickly transforming in to astrocytes as if to defend themselves from the disease.
By using this method researcheres were able to “trick” the astrocytes in to multiplying at a much faster rate than was previously thought possible . Furthermore, it allowed them to compare the original mutated astrocytes with a healthier response group that developed as a result of their presence. This new method has implications for the study of neurodegeneratives diseases like Dementia Azheimers and Alexanders disease. For example – scientits will be able to test various pharmaceutical therapies on the mutated cells without risking human lives. Furthermore in the future – it’s possible that stem cell grown glial cells could be transplanted in to the brain to improve cognition.
The journal was published in nature.