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Conference report – A focus on astrocytes in MND research


Wendy Noble (King’s College London) who helped organise the Biochemical Society and British Neuroscience Association focused meeting “Astrocytes in Health and Neurodegenerative Disease”, Institute of Child Health, London, 28 – 29 April 2014, blogs about the event.

Researchers from King’s College London, the University of Manchester and the University of California at Los Angeles organized a conference to discuss recent findings about the roles of astrocytes in health and different neurodegenerative diseases, including MND. This event was sponsored by the Biochemical Society and British Neuroscience Association, and conference funds from the MND Association helped to support the meeting.

Astrocytes (shown in green) connect with many nerve cells (shown in red) to regulate the communication between nerve cells. Interactions between astrocytes and nerve cells are disrupted in many neurodegenerative diseases, including MND. Image provided by Emma Phillips (King’s College London)
Astrocytes (shown in green) connect with many nerve cells (shown in red) to regulate the communication between nerve cells. Interactions between astrocytes and nerve cells are disrupted in many neurodegenerative diseases, including MND. Image provided by Emma Phillips (King’s College London)

What are astrocytes?

Astrocytes are part of a family of cells in the brain called glia that intermingle with the nerve cells. Astrocytes have long been known to secrete chemical factors that provide important support for nerve cells, keeping them healthy and active. Recent work has shown that astrocytes also play important roles at synapses. Synapses are connections between nerve cells in the brain that allow them to communicate with each other, and control the way we learn, move and behave in response to different situations. In neurodegenerative diseases, astrocytes, nerve cells and synapses become unhealthy and die, and this leads to the clinical features of disease such as impairments in movement, memory and changes in behaviour.

Many distinguished researchers from around the world presented their findings at the conference. This included exciting research into the roles of astrocytes during brain development, the roles that astrocytes play in promoting brain health and providing energy to the brain, and the way that normal astrocyte functions are disrupted during aging and in neurodegenerative diseases.

Two of the best

There were two excellent presentations on interactions between astrocytes and nerve cells in MND from Professor Siddharthan Chandran (University of Edinburgh, UK) and Dr Laura Ferraiuolo (Nationwide Childrens Hospital, USA; Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience, UK).

Professor Chandran is the Director of the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. He is one of the leading experts on the use of stem cell technologies, and has pioneered the use of brain cells created from inducible pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to study human neurological diseases.

iPSCs are commonly produced from skin biopsies taken from consenting adults, including those with diseases. Experimental procedures are used to turn these skin cells into pluripotent cells, which are cells with the capacity to be turned into multiple different types of cells, including brain cells. Professor Chandran’s group previously made nerve cells and astrocytes from iPSCs produced from skin biopsies taken from people with MND and a control group (this research was funded by the MND Association and you can read more here(link). They found that astrocytes from patients with certain MND-causing mutations were detrimental to the health of nerve cells (http://www.pnas.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=23401527). These are important findings since it suggests that astrocytes could be a focus for new disease-modifying treatments for MND.

Emma Phillips was awarded the Biochemical Society Early Career Researcher Poster Prize.
Emma Phillips was awarded the Biochemical Society Early Career Researcher Poster Prize.

Dr Laura Ferraiuolo, who works with Professors Brian Kaspar and Pamela Shaw, described an elegant series of experiments undertaken to understand the role of astrocytes in different forms of MND. She described exciting techniques whereby astrocytes cultured from the spinal cord of sporadic MND patients, and from those with some familial forms of MND, caused the nerve cells associated with muscles (motor nerve cells) to die. Dr Ferraiuolo went on to describe some new methods of making human astrocytes and nerve cells from skin cells, and how her group have used these to confirm that astrocytes from sporadic and some familial forms of MND are damaging to nerve cells. They have also begun to unravel the cell processes that go awry in MND and lead to the death of motor nerve cells. These new methods for culturing human cells that were presented by Professor Chandran and Dr Ferraiuolo are very likely to help in the search for new treatments for MND.

The conference also attracted many excellent early career researchers whose contributions were acknowledged with a series of Biochemical Society-sponsored prizes. Many congratulations to Amy Birch from Magdalena Sastre’s group at Imperial College London who received the oral presentation prize for her excellent summary of their work on the role of astrocytes during amyloid-associated neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease. Emma Phillips, a PhD student with Drs Wendy Noble and Diane Hanger at King’s College London, was judged to have had the best poster presentation, and she also received a certificate to honor her achievement.

The organizers of this conference offer their sincere thanks to the Biochemical Society, British Neuroscience Association, MND Association and other sponsors for their support of this successful meeting.

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