Advances in stem cell research: beyond therapies

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At the 14th Annual Christopher Reeve Hot Topics in Stem Cell Biology Evening of Data Blitzes, I learned about stem cells in development and therapy.


When I heard about this stem cell symposium, I was intrigued. I knew very little about stem cells other than that they have been used with some success therapeutically and that they are crucial for brain development. Eric Lumdsen, a fellow blogger, has done a great job[ reviewing the basics of stem cell research](https://community.sfn.org/t/the-wide-applicability-of-stem-cells/8360), so I’ll assume you read that post and start from there.

The event was fun and unique – I assume in part due to Evan Snyder’s leadership. Evan organizes this event every year because he wants to share his excitement about stem cells as a fundamental tool for understanding biology. And, he says,

Some people throw Kentucky Derby parties, I throw data blitzes and invite 1000 of my closest friends.

I think many of us neuroscientists would identify with this statement!

As a “data blitz” style event, we heard short talks from a variety of labs working on stem cell research. Especially fun, though, was how the principal investigators introduced the students and postdoctoral fellows giving the talks. It was interesting to have a little more context from the lab, and to understand both the minute details and the big picture in a few short minutes.

In the talks I saw, I got the distinct impression that this particular group of scientists wants to leverage knowledge about stem cells in therapeutic settings. The stories they told focused on how the brain is built, and how insights from this process could help develop better stem cell-based therapies.

The first talk I saw was given by Anastassia Voronova from the lab of Freda Muller and David Kaplan. She found that medial ganglionic eminence interneuron signals regulate the birth of glial cells – specifically oligodendrocytes and not astrocytes. She showed that the signaling molecule Fractalkine mediates this process. In the second talk, Tsukasa Sanosaka from Hideyuki Okano’s lab discussed his recent finding that CHD7 specifies stem cell identity. CHD7 is an interesting protein because mutations in it cause CHARGE syndrome, potentially linking basic research to clinical therapies. These are a few examples of the signaling pathway insights that can be examined in stem cells and used to inform development of better clinical applications in the future.

The most interesting talk of the evening was by Benjamin Throesch from Kristin Baldwin’s lab. He discussed their work using interspecies chimeras to investigate what transcriptional programming comes from inside and outside a given brain cell. I had never heard of this technique!

Philosophically, though, it’s an interesting question: “even if you have sonar, you don’t know what it’s like to be a bat” said Dr. Baldwin in her introduction.

They make “mRats” by putting rat olfactory cells into a mouse with no sense of smell. At first, rat cell glomeruli form in the olfactory bulb, but in older mRats these glomeruli are gone. They are working on following up this finding. Using interspecies chimeras as a tool to study system development, regenerative medicine and organ transplant is certainly exciting and has a ton of potential.

Finally, we ended the evening with a talk from Cameron Pernia from Evan Snyder’s lab. Cameron has done some heroic technical work to expand stem cell research to polygenetic diseases – complex disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with no single genetic cause. Cameron showed that stem cell cultures from patients with bipolar disorder fire in a highly synchronous way –akin to epilepsy. It appears that hyperactive neurons produce hypofunctional neural networks. The complex signal is necessary for proper functioning – and perhaps bipolar disorder is only evident when examining the neural network.

The symposium was an entertaining way to spend part of an evening at SFN, and I’m glad I went. Stem cells are useful in a variety of applications and can tell us a ton about the development of the brain.

Further reading:
Voronova et al 2017


Torrey Truszkowski
Annual Meeting Blogger
Twitter: @TorreyTruszko


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