Stem Cell Scientists Compare Findings, Think Ahead to Future Treatments

By Robin Hindery

A group of the world’s leading neural stem cell scientists gathered recently at UCSF to discuss their work and its implications for the treatment of devastating nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke and spinal cord injury.

Arnold Kriegstein

The “2nd International Stem Cell Research Symposium: Frontiers of Neural Stem Cells” took place Oct. 1 and 2 at the UCSF Mission Bay campus. The event, hosted by the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF, featured two dozen top scientists from as close as the neighboring building and as far away as Japan. “We felt there was a real need and opportunity to move research forward by bringing everyone together to discuss the current status and bottlenecks, to overcome technical limitations and foster collaborations, [and] to do our part to promote progress,” said Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Broad Center and one of four UCSF scientists who presented their work. The two-day program was divided into four main sessions: the origin of neural stem cells; the role of stem cells and progenitor cells in building and repairing the brain; mechanisms for creating neurons and supportive “glial” cells; and the use of stem cells to understand and treat neurological disease. The roughly 200 audience members were encouraged to ask questions after each individual presentation and to post comments on a live blog throughout the event.

Sharing Research Highlights

In his own talk, Kriegstein described his lab’s research on the benefits and risks of using animal models, particularly rodents, to study brain development and disease. Many of the diseases of keen interest to neural stem cell biologists — from Alzheimer’s to autism to stroke — affect the neocortex, the region of the brain that differs most between humans and rodents, he noted. “We must know the limitations of the models if we’re going to provide successful treatments,” Kriegstein said. Kriegstein’s colleague at the Broad Center, Arturo Alvarez-Buylla, PhD, focused his discussion on how adult neural stem cells give rise to new brain cells. Contrary to the belief that adult neural stem cells can manufacture all types of neurons, Alvarez-Buylla and his team has discovered that a stem cell’s particular location in the brain determines what type of neuron it produces. This finding could play an important role in the production of specific nerve cell types to combat a specific disease, said Alvarez-Buylla, a professor of neurological surgery and a principal investigator at UCSF’s Brain Tumor Research Center. Controlling the fate of neural cells is also a central idea behind John Rubenstein’s research, which he outlined at the symposium. Rubenstein, MD, PhD, a UCSF professor of psychiatry and a member of the Broad Center faculty, studies the transcription factors, or molecular controls, that regulate genes. He and his colleagues hope to someday manipulate transcription factors to manage the specialization of progenitor cells. Samuel Pleasure, MD, PhD, a UCSF associate professor of neurology and a member of the Broad Center, was a last-minute addition to the symposium program, but his presentation on early brain development blended seamlessly into the line-up. Pleasure’s lab is exploring the relationship between neural stem cells and the meninges, the three-layer system of membranes that surround and protect the brain. The meninges are a little-recognized source of signaling molecules that may regulate the migration and differentiation of neurons in the cortex, Pleasure said. Beyond offering scientists the opportunity to talk about their research and exchange insights, Kriegstein said he hoped the stem cell symposium would spark new collaborations. “Bringing together scientists with different kinds of expertise is the best way to gain momentum in this exciting field,” he said. UCSF is doing its part to foster new, productive partnerships among its resident stem cell experts. In 2010, a $123 million stem cell research building will open on the Parnassus campus, bringing together 25 labs and serving as the core of a research program that will continue to extend throughout the University.

Related Links:

Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF First Stem Cell Clinical Trial for Treating Brain’s “Communication Highway” to Begin
UCSF News Release, Sept. 10, 2009 UCSF Scientists Welcome Sea Change in Stem Cell Development
Science Café, May 15, 2009