Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A new weapon against stroke

UC Davis stem cell study uncovers the brain-protective powers of astrocytes


(Sacramento, CA) —  One of regenerative medicine’s greatest goals is to develop new treatments for stroke. So far, stem cell research for the disease has focused on developing therapeutic neurons — the primary movers of electrical impulses in the brain — to repair tissue damaged when oxygen to the brain is limited by a blood clot or break in a vessel. New UC Davis research, however, shows that other cells may be better suited for the task.

Published today in the journal Nature Communications, the large, collaborative study found that astrocytes — neural cells that transport key nutrients and form the blood-brain barrier — can protect brain tissue and reduce disability due to stroke and other ischemic brain disorders.
“Astrocytes are often considered just ‘housekeeping’ cells because of their supportive roles to neurons, but they’re actually much more sophisticated,” said Wenbin Deng, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at UC Davis and senior author of the study. “They are critical to several brain functions and are believed to protect neurons from injury and death. They are not excitable cells like neurons and are easier to harness. We wanted to explore their potential in treating neurological disorders, beginning with stroke.”

Deng added that the therapeutic potential of astrocytes has not been investigated in this context, since making them at the purity levels necessary for stem cell therapies is challenging. In addition, the specific types of astrocytes linked with protecting and repairing brain injuries were not well understood.

The team began by using a transcription factor (a protein that turns on genes) known as Olig2 to differentiate human embryonic stem cells into astrocytes. This approach generated a previously undiscovered type of astrocyte called Olig2PC-Astros. More importantly, it produced those astrocytes at almost 100 percent purity.

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