Posts Tagged ‘Terry Pratchett’

We have had hundreds of short technical talks in the Tuesday get-together called the Millennium Café in the building where I work. Many are interesting. Some are difficult to understand. Today’s talk by a Penn State biology professor was simply mind-blowing.

If Gong Chen’s research pans out, he will likely win a Nobel Prize and be as revered as Jonas Salk or Louis Pasteur. He is working on a technology to turn the scar tissue left in the brain or spine by disease or accidents back into functioning neurons. In the process he believes he can help stroke victims regain their functioning, help Alzheimer’s disease patients to remember, cure diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and glioma, a common brain and spinal cord tumor.

So far none of this has been tested on humans, only in mice and in human cells in a petri dish. Many cures that work in mice never end up helping human patients. That’s why he is not polishing his Nobel acceptance speech just yet, he told me.

When the brain is damaged by accident or disease, the neurons die and their space is filled with glial scar tissue. Glia cells provide support for neurons in the brain and the nervous system. When a neuron dies because of a stroke, disease, or an accident, the glia cells called astrocytes form scar tissue that can block the formation of new neurons. For decades, the only therapy was to try to surgically remove the scar tissue; however, that met with little improvement. Then, in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka discovered that mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells that could be directed to become any type of specialized cell. He shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine with John Gurdon, another stem cell pioneer. Gong Chen used this idea to begin his experiments with glia scar tissue, but with some significant differences.

In typical stem cell research, skin cells are taken from a patient, turned into stem cells using chemical cues, reprogrammed to be some other type of cell, and then grown in the lab. They can then be used to test drugs or be injected back into the patient, for instance to grow new blood cells in leukemia patients. Chen’s technique bypasses the stem cell phase and delivers a set of chemicals directly to the glial tissue where they activate a neural transcription factor in glial cells called NeuroD1. The glial cells transform into neural cells and grow into functioning neurons.

One of the risks of stem cells is that they are dividing cells, and cancer arises when cells mutate during division. The same is true of glial cells, which is why brain cancers are called gliomas. However, neurons do not divide, and turning glial cells into neurons actually lowers the risk of cancer.

Gong Chen didn’t offer any timelines on when his technique might be tried in humans. Those kinds of trials require years and millions of dollars. He still needs a reliable method for delivering his chemicals to the right spots in the brain, part of the reason he was giving his talk to materials scientists today. Fortunately, we have people who are experts at packaging and delivering small nanoparticles with cancer fighting chemicals in the body, so I don’t think that will be a significant barrier. We know how to do that.

I would love to see this happen in time to save the great science fiction writer Terry Pratchett, who has early onset Alzheimer’s and is losing the battle. I think most of us know someone who has suffered Alzheimer’s, or had a stroke, or has Parkinson’s disease. It is frightening to lose your memory, or power of speech or movement. There are millions who could benefit, billions of dollars in medical costs avoided each year. All in all, as I said, a mind-blowing concept. Let’s hope its day comes soon.

Gong Chen’s website: http://bio.psu.edu/directory/guc2

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