Category Archives: Medical Research

Mechanisms That Allow Embryonic Stem Cells to Become Any Cell in the Human Body Identified

July 18, 2012
From ScienceDaily

New research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem sheds light on pluripotency — the ability of embryonic stem cells to renew themselves indefinitely and to differentiate into all types of mature cells. Solving this problem, which is a major challenge in modern biology, could expedite the use of embryonic stem cells in cell therapy and regenerative medicine.

If scientists can replicate the mechanisms that make pluripotency possible, they could create cells in the laboratory which could be implanted in humans to cure diseases characterized by cell death, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and other degenerative diseases.

To shed light on these processes, researchers in the lab of Dr. Eran Meshorer, in the Department of Genetics at the Hebrew University’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, are combining molecular, microscopic and genomic approaches. Meshorer’s team is focusing on epigenetic pathways — which cause biological changes without a corresponding change in the DNA sequence — that are specific to embryonic stem cells.

The molecular basis for epigenetic mechanisms is chromatin, which is comprised of a cell’s DNA and structural and regulatory proteins. In groundbreaking research performed by Shai Melcer, a PhD student in the Meshorer lab, the mechanisms which support an “open” chromatin conformation in embryonic stem cells were examined. The researchers found that chromatin is less condensed in embryonic stem cells, allowing them the flexibility or “functional plasticity” to turn into any kind of cell.

A distinct pattern of chemical modifications of chromatin structural proteins (referred to as the acetylation and methylation of histones) enables a looser chromatin configuration in embryonic stem cells. During the early stages of differentiation, this pattern changes to facilitate chromatin compaction.

But even more interestingly, the authors found that a nuclear lamina protein, lamin A, is also a part of the secret. In all differentiated cell types, lamin A binds compacted domains of chromatin and anchors them to the cell’s nuclear envelope. Lamin A is absent from embryonic stem cells and this may enable the freer, more dynamic chromatin state in the cell nucleus. The authors believe that chromatin plasticity is tantamount to functional plasticity since chromatin is made up of DNA that includes all genes and codes for all proteins in any living cell. Understanding the mechanisms that regulate chromatin function will enable intelligent manipulations of embryonic stem cells in the future.

“If we can apply this new understanding about the mechanisms that give embryonic stem cells their plasticity, then we can increase or decrease the dynamics of the proteins that bind DNA and thereby increase or decrease the cells’ differentiation potential,” concludes Dr. Meshorer. “This could expedite the use of embryonic stem cells in cell therapy and regenerative medicine, by enabling the creation of cells in the laboratory which could be implanted in humans to cure diseases characterized by cell death, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and other degenerative diseases.”

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Diabetes Drug Makes Brain Cells Grow

July 5, 2012
From ScienceDaily

The widely used diabetes drug metformin comes with a rather unexpected and alluring side effect: it encourages the growth of new neurons in the brain. The study reported in the July 6th issue of Cell Stem Cell, a Cell Press publication, also finds that those neural effects of the drug also make mice smarter.

The discovery is an important step toward therapies that aim to repair the brain not by introducing new stem cells but rather by spurring those that are already present into action, says the study’s lead author Freda Miller of the University of Toronto-affiliated Hospital for Sick Children. The fact that it’s a drug that is so widely used and so safe makes the news all that much better.

Earlier work by Miller’s team highlighted a pathway known as aPKC-CBP for its essential role in telling neural stem cells where and when to differentiate into mature neurons. As it happened, others had found before them that the same pathway is important for the metabolic effects of the drug metformin, but in liver cells.

“We put two and two together,” Miller says. If metformin activates the CBP pathway in the liver, they thought, maybe it could also do that in neural stem cells of the brain to encourage brain repair.

The new evidence lends support to that promising idea in both mouse brains and human cells. Mice taking metformin not only showed an increase in the birth of new neurons, but they were also better able to learn the location of a hidden platform in a standard maze test of spatial learning.

While it remains to be seen whether the very popular diabetes drug might already be serving as a brain booster for those who are now taking it, there are already some early hints that it may have cognitive benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease. It had been thought those improvements were the result of better diabetes control, Miller says, but it now appears that metformin may improve Alzheimer’s symptoms by enhancing brain repair.

Miller says they now hope to test whether metformin might help repair the brains of those who have suffered brain injury due to trauma or radiation therapies for cancer.

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Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation Shown to Impact Walking Patterns

Fri, 06/01/2012
From Kennedy Krieger Institute

Kennedy Krieger researchers believe tool has potential to help patients relearn to walk after brain injury

Baltimore, MD — In a step towards improving rehabilitation for patients with walking impairments, researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that non-invasive stimulation of the cerebellum, an area of the brain known to be essential in adaptive learning, helped healthy individuals learn a new walking pattern more rapidly. The findings suggest that cerebellar transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) may be a valuable therapy tool to aid people relearning how to walk following a stroke or other brain injury.

Previous studies in the lab of Amy Bastian, PhD, PT, director of the Motion Analysis Laboratory at Kennedy Krieger Institute, have shown that the cerebellum, a part of the brain involved in movement coordination, is essential for walking adaptation. In this new study, Dr. Bastian and her colleagues explored the impact of stimulation over the cerebellum on adaptive learning of a new walking pattern. Specifically, her team tested how anode (positive), cathode (negative) or sham (none) stimulation affected this learning process.

“We’ve known that the cerebellum is essential to adaptive learning mechanisms like reaching, walking, balance and eye movements,”says Dr. Bastian. “In this study, we wanted to examine the effects of direct stimulation of the cerebellum on locomotor learning utilizing a split-belt treadmill that separately controls the legs.”

The study, published today in the Journal of Neurophysiology, found that by placing electrodes on the scalp over the cerebellum and applying very low levels of current, the rate of walking adaptation could be increased or decreased. Dr. Bastian’s team studied 53 healthy adults in a series of split-belt treadmill walking tests. Rather than a single belt, a split-belt treadmill consists of two belts that can move at different speeds. During split-belt walking, one leg is set to move faster than the other. This initially disrupts coordination between the legs so the user is not walking symmetrically, however over time the user learns to adapt to the disturbance.

The main experiment consisted of a two-minute baseline period of walking with both belts at the same slow speed, followed by a 15-minute period with the belts at two separate speeds. While people were on the treadmill, researchers stimulated one side of the cerebellum to assess the impact on the rate of re-adjustment to a symmetric walking pattern.

Dr. Bastian’s team found not only that cerebellar tDCS can change the rate of cerebellum-dependent locomotor learning, but specifically that the anode speeds up learning and the cathode slows it down. It was also surprising that the side of the cerebellum that was stimulated mattered; only stimulation of the side that controls the leg walking on the faster treadmill belt changed adaptation rate.

“It is important to demonstrate that we can make learning faster or slower, as it suggests that we are not merely interfering with brain function,” says Dr. Bastian. “Our findings also suggest that tDCS can be selectively used to assess and understand motor learning.”

The results from this study present an exciting opportunity to test cerebellar tDCS as a rehabilitation tool. Dr. Bastian says, “If anodal tDCS prompts faster learning, this may help reduce the amount of time needed for stroke patients to relearn to walk evenly. It may also be possible to use tDCS to help sustain gains made in therapy, so patients can retain and practice improved walking patterns for a longer period of time. We are currently testing these ideas in individuals who have had a stroke.”

Other co-authors on this study were Pablo Celnik and Gowri Jayaram, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Byron Tang, Rani Pallegadda, and Erin V.L. Vasudevan, Kennedy Krieger Institute.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Johns Hopkins Brain Sciences Institute.

ABOUT THE KENNEDY KRIEGER INSTITUTE:

Internationally recognized for improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders and injuries of the brain and spinal cord, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD serves more than 16,000 individuals each year through inpatient and outpatient clinics, home and community services and school-based programs. Kennedy Krieger provides a wide range of services for children with developmental concerns mild to severe, and is home to a team of investigators who are contributing to the understanding of how disorders develop while pioneering new interventions and earlier diagnosis. For more information on Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit www.kennedykrieger.org.

ABOUT THE MOTION ANALYSIS LABORATORY:

The Motion Analysis Laboratory at Kennedy Krieger Institute studies performance and learning of reaching and walking movements in healthy adults and children, and in different patient populations including: adults and children with cerebellar damage, adults with hemiparesis from stroke, adults with multiple sclerosis or adrenomyeloneuropathy, children with hemispherectomy, children with cerebral palsy and children with autism. All studies are designed to test specific hypotheses about the function of different brain areas, the cause of specific impairments and/or the effects of different interventions.

MEDIA CONTACT:

Megan Lustig
(202) 955-6222
mlustig@spectrumscience.com

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