Scientists from Rutgers and Stanford universities have developed a potentially revolutionary technique to grow new neurons from adult stem cells and better ensure their survival during transplantation to the brain. The method, involving the use of 3-D scaffolds, may one day help to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study involved a large group of researchers from both universities, collaborating across different disciplines. The conversion of adults cells to stem cells that can be grown into neurons is nothing new, but the supporting structure improved cell survival 38-fold compared to other methods, like the injection of isolated cells.

The 3-D scaffolds consist of tiny polymer fibers, said Prabhas V. Moghe, a distinguished professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Rutgers. Researchers grew the neurons on the scaffold in the lab before injecting a number of them into the brains of mice. Once transplanted, neurons that sprouted from the scaffold were in an excellent position to communicate with neurons already present in the brain, enabling their survival.

“If you can transplant cells in a way that mimics how these cells are already configured in the brain, then you’re one step closer to getting the brain to communicate with the cells that you’re now transplanting,” Dr. Moghe said in a press release. ”In this work, we’ve done that by providing cues for neurons to rapidly network in 3D.”

The study, “Generation and transplantation of reprogrammed human neurons in the brain using 3D microtopographic scaffolds,” offers hope for patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, since the method could be developed to replace dying brain cells.

Researchers now want to improve the biomaterials used, allowing for the growth of even more neurons on the 3-D scaffolds.

“The more neurons we can transplant, the more therapeutic benefits you can bring to the disease. We want to try to stuff as many neurons as we can in as little space as we can. The idea is to create a very dense circuitry of neurons that is not only highly functioning but also better controlled,” Dr. Moghe said.

The team is also testing the technology in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease, another neurodegenerative condition that would benefit from stem cell therapy. It estimates that another 10 and 20 years of development will be needed before the method might be evaluated in human trials.


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