Science and Tech


Scientists make key discovery in fighting brain diseases

Scientists have made a breakthrough that could make all the difference in helping treat and, one day, cure patients with neurodegenerative diseases.
Posted at 8:11 PM, Feb 24, 2023

Scientists have made a key discovery they think could be a crucial step in slowing or even stopping brain diseases.  

We met with neuroscientist Evangelos Kiskinis at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Researchers there have been able to grow special mature brain cells unique to a patient and their illness in a lab. 

"This is something that we've never been able to see clearly before," Kiskinis said.

It starts with neurobiology that's about 17 years old. Researchers take blood samples from, for example, a patient with ALS. From that blood sample, they grow stem cells which can grow into brain cells. 

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"We refer to these cells as induced pluripotent stem cells," Kiskinis continued.

These blood samples are specifically coming from one patient. So these brain cells are then specific to that patient. 

"In order to create them, we do not touch a human embryo. We just take some blood from any individual that walks into the clinic and we just turn that into an induced pluripotent stem cell.  

But scientists still faced a major block.   

When a patient gets a diagnosis like ALSParkinson's or Alzheimer's, they are typically in their 50s to 70s, on average. 

The lab-made stem cells were brand new. Blank slates. 

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They couldn't resemble the complex network scientists needed to understand brain cell breakdown. 

Until now.

"We can even, basically, age the cells on a petri dish," said Samuel Stupp, director of The Simpson Querrey Institute for Bionanotechnology at Northwestern University.

Stupp has spent his career studying regenerative medicine and electroactive biomaterials — science that could help heal and restore damaged bodies.  

Scripps News first told you about his breakthroughs in spinal cord injury reversal. 

In a video provided by Northwestern, we can see the before and after of a paralyzed mouse walking four weeks later, after one injection made in Stupp's lab. 

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In it are tiny nanoscale fibers that form a network that mimics the natural environment for cell growth through something they call "dancing molecules."

Since then, the nanotech has led to advancements in bone regeneration, too.

Scientists used this same method to age the neurons, making mature brain cells.  

"Creating mature neurons in the laboratory is an extremely exciting opportunity," Stupp said. "The reason is that cells in the central nervous system, the brain, in the spinal cord, do not regenerate. They are very difficult to repair once they become damaged."

The growth discovery is still new, but the potential includes treatments for diseases like ALS, not just brain or spinal injury. 

But first, more research needs to be done. Scientists need to find how the mature brain cells communicate with other parts of the body. 

Although Kiskinis says it's only a matter of time to learn those inner workings and discover the answers to slow or even stop that brain cell breakdown.