Researchers at Lund University have developed a new method for developing astrocytes from embryonic stem cells in a short period of time. The new method reduces the time it takes to produce the cells from months to two weeks, and the study is now published in Nature Methods.
"This makes it easier for us to study the role of astrocytes in different conditions," says Henrik Ahlenius, one of the researchers behind the study.
Previously, astrocytes were thought to exist only to provide structural support. However, their importance in maintaining normal brain health is slowly being recognized.
One challenge in research is that it was difficult to obtain human astrocytes for research. There are ways to breed astrocytes in labs, but it has taken a long time and been both difficult, expensive and complicated.
Previous methods have succeeded in producing human astrocytes from embryonic stem cells, but it has taken months. By our means, it takes one to two weeks to produce large amounts of fully functional human astrocytes.
The method is now published in Nature Methods.
In the study, Henrik Ahlenius and his research team enabled genes in the embryonic stem cells, which under normal development control how astrocytes are formed.
"Many have previously used embryonic stem cells to breed astrocytes, but these methods have attempted to mimic normal development from a foster stem cell until it becomes an astrocyte in the individual, which provides a time-consuming and complicated protocol with many steps," said Henrik Ahlenius.
The astrocytes grown from the embryonic stem cells very well resemble the astrocytes found in the brain of adult humans, both in terms of appearance, genetic profile and function.
Using CRISPR-Cas9, popularly called gene wax, they introduced a mutation in the embryonic stem cells that causes the severe brain disease, Alexanders disease. Then they used the new method of converting healthy and mutated stem cells to astrocytes.
When the researchers compared the advanced astrocytes, they observed that the cells mutated showed several defects previously known to be found in those suffering from Alexanders disease.
"By combining CRISPR-Cas9 in this way and our method of rapidly cultivating human astrocytes, improved opportunities are available to investigate the role of astrocytes in different neurological diseases," says Henrik Ahlenius.
The main focus of the research group is to study age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's, and the next step is now to use the method of investigating the importance of astrocytes in these diseases.
This article has been republished from materials provided by Lunds University. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.
Canals, I., Ginisty, A., Quist, E., Timmerman, R., Fritze, J., Miskinyte, G., . . . Ahlenius, H. (2018). Rapid and efficient induction of functional astrocytes from human pluripotent stem cells. Nature Methods. doi:10.1038/s41592-018-0103-2