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$2.8 million grant supports stem cell research for neurological repair

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A $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, Chicago, Illinois, study how to replace neurons lost through stroke, traumatic brain and spinal injury and brain diseases including Alzheimer's.

The five-year grant was recently awarded to Daniel A. Peterson, Ph.D., director of the university's Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, and Robert Marr, Ph.D., Chicago Medical School associate professor of neuroscience, for the study "Reprogramming Cell Fate for Repair." The study is being conducted in collaboration with co-principal investigators Oliver Brüstle, M.D., and Martin Schwarz, Ph.D., at the University of Bonn in Germany.

"Our new reprogramming technology allows us to try to make neurons wherever they're needed in the brain for repair and we're having some success," Dr. Peterson said. "What we're still trying to figure out is how to make enough of them and how to make them connect with the existing circuit."

Neurons in the brain and spinal cord are long-lived cells that are not replaced when damaged or lost. Recent advances in stem cell biology make it possible to introduce developmental genes into mature cells and direct them to change their fate by becoming a different type of cell. The study will use gene therapy approaches to directly reprogram rodent and human progenitor cells, which descend from stem cells to become neurons, and then evaluate the extent to which these newly engineered neurons connect with the rest of the brain.

The findings could lead to new therapies for neurological injury and disease such as stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury (TBI) — a long-term focus of the project.

At present, there are few options to repair neurons lost through injuries such as stroke or TBI or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 1.7 million people per year suffer a TBI, many of whom incur permanent disability as a result. Mild TBI is one of the most common neurologic disorders accounting for approximately 90 percent of all brain injuries sustained. Such injuries are a common occurrence in athletes. Sport-related concussions number an estimated 2 to 4 million annually in the U.S.

Dr. Peterson's team, which has also included researchers at DePaul University in Chicago, is investigating neuronal loss in an animal model of mild TBI with the goal of applying the reprogramming approach to replace lost neurons and restore function.


Two new nerve cells (green), created by reprogramming, nestled among previously existing neurons (blue) and supporting cells (red) in the cortex of the rat brain. Image courtesy of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science

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