EU-funded researchers are behind a headline-making world first. UK and Italian teams involved in the EuroStemCell project have developed, in mouse models, what is being described as the first pure nerve stem cells, unlocking the mysteries surrounding these ‘master cells' and providing hope of, one day, being able to treat brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh and Milan have developed a new technique to grow so-called “pure brain stem cells” which could be used to model diseases of the nervous system, such as the memory disease Alzheimer's and the shaking disease Parkinson's, as well as to develop new treatments. The research was recently published on the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS Biology and has also received extensive coverage in the mainstream press in the UK and Italy.
|Researchers can now culture brain stem cells in unlimited numbers and then induce differentiation into mature neurons by changing growth factors.|
© EuroStemCell, c/- PloS Biology
Stem cells are sometimes labelled ‘master cells' because they can make all the cells in the human body, including nerve stem cells. Nerve stem cells help to build the brain and central nervous system in humans and other mammals. In the body, stem cells divide to produce both copies of themselves and other more specialised cell types.
Until now, scientists growing neural stem cells in a petri dish could not get them to produce exact copies of themselves, leaving them with a mix of some stem cells and lots of specialised cells. By changing the cell-growing conditions, the EU-funded research labs could establish pure stem cell divisions. The scientists have replicated their initial findings, which used mouse cells, with human stem cells.
“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 specialised stem cells,” noted researcher Luciano Conti in a EuroStemCell press statement.
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. Researchers will then be able to study the cellular and molecular processes that go wrong in disease, which is a crucial first step in developing effective, safe therapies.
Step in the right direction
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, according to the press statement.
The researchers also feel that their work may be a step in the right direction in 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,” explained 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.”
EuroStemCell is a four-year Integrated Project earmarked in the Sixth Framework Programme to receive up to €11.9 million in funding from the EU. The 27 participating laboratories – universities, research institutes and three biotechnology companies – are from Scotland, England, Sweden, France, Denmark, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. EuroStemCell's mission is to build the scientific foundations required to take stem cell technology to the clinic.
In addition to support from the Commission's EuroStemCell project, the scientists are also funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the UK, and The Wellcome Trust.
EuroStemCell, PloS Biology, EU