Researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have developed a cutting-edge laboratory technique able to turn human stem cells – special cells able to grow into any type of cell in the body – into brain-like tissues in a culture dish.
They intend to use their tool to study how myelination – the deposition of myelin around nerve cells – occurs in the central nervous system, and how diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) impair this process.
The experimental protocol to grow these structures in vitro (outside an organism) is described in the study, “Induction of myelinating oligodendrocytes in human cortical spheroids,” published in the journal Nature Methods.
These structures, called “oligocortical spheroids,” are small spheres that contain all the major cell types usually found in the human brain, including oligodendrocytes — cells that produce myelin, which is the fatty substance that insulates nerve fibers. Previous cerebral organoid techniques failed to include oligodendrocytes.
“We have taken the organoid system and added the third major cell type in the central nervous system — oligodendrocytes — and now have a more accurate representation of cellular interactions that occur during human brain development,” Paul Tesar, PhD, associate professor of genetics and genome sciences at Case Western’s medical school and the study’s senior author, said in a press release.
Oligodendrocytes are essential to good brain health. Without these cells, myelin production is hampered and nerve cells cannot communicate effectively, and eventually they start to deteriorate. This is the starting point for many neurological disorders caused by myelin defects, including MS and rare pediatric genetic disorders like Gaucher disease.
Using this new organoid system and these myelin-producing cells, researchers intend to study the process of myelination — how it occurs in normal circumstances and how neurodegenerative diseases disrupt this process.
“This is a powerful platform to understand human development and neurological disease,” Tesar said. “Using stem cell technology we can generate nearly unlimited quantities of human brain-like tissue in the lab. Our method creates a ‘mini-cortex,’ containing neurons, astrocytes, and now oligodendrocytes producing myelin. This is a major step toward unlocking stages of human brain development that previously were inaccessible.”
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