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Research Snapshot: Stem cells’ role in reprogramming the brain after a stroke

Continuing with Health Talk’s coverage of May Stroke Awareness Month, today we’ll take a closer look at an ongoing study that uses stems cells to reprogram the brain after a stroke.

In the wake of a stroke, neurons within the brain are damaged. Using stems cells and stem cell technology, researchers in the Val, V. Richard Zarling, Earl Grande Stroke and Stem Cell Laboratory, within the Department of Neurosurgery and the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, are exploring ways to replace and regenerate damaged neurons in the brain that will ultimately lead to functional improvement of those neurons.

“We believe that direct reprogramming of non-neuronal cells to generate new neurons within the brain is an exciting approach to repair the brain after a stroke,” said Andrew Grande, M.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery, who is leading the research along with Masato Nakafuku, M.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “In the past we were limited to generating neurons from embryonic stem cells or other stem cell sources which then had to be transplanted into the brain. With direct reprogramming the goal is to directly reprogram one cell type already found in the brain directly into a neuron. By doing so we can avoid problems related to cell transplantation.”

Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Grande says that the concept of direct reprogramming of neurons is complicated.

“Imagine trying to turn an apple into an orange. We’re essentially trying to convert one type of cell into a completely different cell form.”

The study was important for a number of reasons:

  • This was only the second report in the world to demonstrate direct reprogramming of one cell type to another in the brain.
  • Non-neuronal cells were not only converted into immature neurons but at later time points mature neurons were seen suggesting that the new neurons survive and then mature. There was even some evidence to suggest that the new neurons establish connections to other surrounding neurons.
  • In the setting of stroke, a greater number of cells were converted into neurons suggesting that the environment encountered after a stroke can help facilitate this process of reprogramming.

One of the major hurdles that Grande and his team have experienced along the way is developing new neurons that are region-specific. For example, if neurons were damaged that affect speech, Grande is working to develop neurons that would replace and regenerate the same type of neurons to aid in speech recovery.

The next step for Grande in the research process is to develop translational studies to progress into larger animal models and then ultimately into human trials.

“We’re optimistic our research will have some clinical benefits hopefully in the not so distant future. Our goal is to help people restore the quality and functionality of life after a stroke,” Grande concludes.

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