Scientists cultivate human brain’s most ubiquitous cell in lab dish

Astrocytes are star-shaped cells that are the most common cell in the human brain and have now been grown from embryonic and induced stem cells in the laboratory of UW-Madison neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang. Once considered mere putty or glue in the brain, astrocytes are of growing interest to biomedical research as they appear to play key roles in many of the brain's basic functions, as well as neurological disorders ranging from headaches to dementia. In this picture astrocyte progenitors and immature astrocytes cluster to form an "astrosphere." Photo provided by Robert Krencik/ UW-Madison

Long considered to be little more than putty in the brain and spinal cord, the star-shaped astrocyte has found new respect among neuroscientists who have begun to recognize its many functions in the brain, not to mention its role in a range of disorders of the central nervous system.

Now, writing in the current issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, a group led by University of Wisconsin-Madison stem cell researcher Su-Chun Zhang reports it has been able to direct embryonic and induced human stem cells to become astrocytes in the lab dish.

The ability to make large, uniform batches of astrocytes, explains Zhang, opens a new avenue to more fully understanding the functional roles of the brain’s most commonplace cell, as well as its involvement in a host of central nervous system disorders ranging from headaches to dementia. What’s more, the ability to culture the cells gives researchers a powerful tool to devise new therapies and drugs for neurological disorders.

“Not a lot of attention has been paid to these cells because human astrocytes have been hard to get,” says Zhang, a researcher at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center and a professor of neuroscience in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. “But we can make billions or trillions of them from a single stem cell.”

Although astrocytes have gotten short shrift from science compared to neurons, the large filamentous cells that process and transmit information, scientists are turning their attention to the more common cells as their roles in the brain become better understood. There are a variety of astrocyte cell types and they perform such basic housekeeping tasks as helping to regulate blood flow, soaking up excess chemicals produced by interacting neurons and controlling the blood-brain barrier, a protective filter that keeps dangerous molecules from entering the brain.

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