Using stem cells and specialised chambers to unravel dementia

Researchers at the University of Manchester are using sophisticated chambers to monitor how toxic proteins spread in dementia and the complex relationship between brain cells and their blood supply.



The brain is our most complex organ, housed behind the protection of the skull and the blood brain barrier, making it enigmatic and rather difficult to study and investigate. The advent of stem cell technology has meant researchers can now transform donated skin cells into the full variety of brain cells, growing them in the lab in dishes and unpicking the elaborate relationships and processes at play. This project sets out to grow brain cells derived from stem cells in sophisticated 3D systems that allow them to precisely manipulate conditions.

Growing nerve cells in the specialised chambers, Dr David Hicks will scrutinise how toxic proteins, such as tau and amyloid that build up in Alzheimer’s, spread between nerve cells. This is a key question to understand, as we know these proteins and the damage they cause spread through the brain in dementia, and so this could be a crucial process to disrupt with potential new treatments. These chambers will also allow the team in Manchester to grow more than one type of cell, meaning they can delve into the complex relationship between brain cells and their blood supply, and study how genetic variation can alter these relationships.

Researchers strive to use experimental systems that most closely reflect the condition they are studying, working to reduce the usage of animals in these experiments. Over the past decade, stem cell technology has revolutionised biomedical research by allowing scientists to transform skin cells donated by people with a disease such as Alzheimer’s into functional brain and nerve cells. The next challenge the researchers face is to study these cells in a system resembling the brain. These new specialised chambers will help the team in Manchester to grow multiple cell types and study intricacies they previously have been unable to, giving new insights into diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Dr Hicks and the team in Manchester are using Nobel Prize-winning techniques, taking skin cells donated by people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and turning them into stem cells – cells which have the potential to become any cell in the body. The team will produce not only nerve cells, but other cells found in the brain, such as those that line blood vessels and maintain the blood brain barrier. This new award will allow them to purchase sophisticated chambers in which to grow these cells and investigate the relationships between different cells and how they interact with each other, finding new clues to key changes in dementia.

A scientist holding a model of a human brain

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Awarded to
Dr David Hicks

University of Manchester

Current Award

10 July 2017 - 9 July 2018

Full project name
Culture of induced pluripotent stem cell-derived human neurons in a microfluidic flow system