Creative Minds: Modeling Neurobiological Disorders in Stem Cells

Feng Zhang

Feng Zhang

Most neurological and psychiatric disorders are profoundly complex, involving a variety of environmental and genetic factors. Researchers around the world have worked with patients and their families to identify hundreds of possible genetic leads to learn what goes wrong in autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. The great challenge now is to begin examining this growing cache of information more systematically to understand the mechanism by which these gene variants contribute to disease risk—potentially providing important information that will someday lead to methods for diagnosis and treatment.

Meeting this profoundly difficult challenge will require a special set of laboratory tools. That’s where Feng Zhang comes into the picture. Zhang, a bioengineer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, has made significant contributions to a number of groundbreaking research technologies over the past decade, including optogenetics (using light to control brain cells), and CRISPR/Cas9, which researchers now routinely use to edit genomes in the lab [1,2].

Zhang has received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to develop new tools to study multiple gene variants that might be involved in a neurological or psychiatric disorder. Zhang draws his inspiration from nature, and the microscopic molecules that various organisms have developed through the millennia to survive. CRISPR/Cas9, for instance, is a naturally occurring bacterial defense system that Zhang and others have adapted into a gene-editing tool.

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If I Only Had a Brain? Tissue Chips Predict Neurotoxicity

Image of neurons, glial cells, and nuclei

Caption: 3D neural tissue chips contain neurons (green), glial cells (red), and nuclei (blue). To take this confocal micrograph, developing neural tissue was removed from a chip and placed on a glass-bottom Petri dish.
Credit: Michael Schwartz, Dept.  of Bioengineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A lot of time, money, and effort are devoted to developing new drugs. Yet only one of every 10 drug candidates entering human clinical trials successfully goes on to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [1]. Many would-be drugs fall by the wayside because they prove toxic to the brain, liver, kidneys, or other organs—toxicity that, unfortunately, isn’t always detected in preclinical studies using mice, rats, or other animal models. That explains why scientists are working so hard to devise technologies that can do a better job of predicting early on which chemical compounds will be safe in humans.

As an important step in this direction, NIH-funded researchers at the Morgridge Institute for Research and University of Wisconsin-Madison have produced neural tissue chips with many features of a developing human brain. Each cultured 3D “organoid”—which sits comfortably in the bottom of a pea-sized well on a standard laboratory plate—comes complete with its very own neurons, support cells, blood vessels, and immune cells! As described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [2], this new tool is poised to predict earlier, faster, and less expensively which new or untested compounds—be they drug candidates or even ingredients in cosmetics and pesticides—might harm the brain, particularly at the earliest stages of development.

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