Astrocytes are star-shaped glial cells with many functions which include providing nutrient support to neurons, helping repair damage to nervous system tissue, regulating connectivity of brain circuits, participating in inflammatory signaling, and helping to regulate blood flow across the blood-brain barrier. They are a crucial component of brain function, but are often overlooked in research and drug development. However, researchers from the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute say they have created astrocytes from stem cells and show that in disease-like environments these helpful cells can turn into neuron killers.
Their study, “CD49f Is a Novel Marker of Functional and Reactive Human iPSC-Derived Astrocytes,” is published in Neuron.
New methods for investigating human astrocytes were needed, given their critical role in the central nervous system. Most studies of astrocytes have been done in mouse models, but it has been shown that many aspects of human astrocyte function are not fully captured by mouse models. “The field needed a reliable method for making human astrocytes from stem cells so that we can better investigate how they may be contributing to neurodegenerative diseases,” explained Valentina Fossati, PhD, study author and a senior research investigator at the NYSCF Research Institute. “Previously, drugs that failed have not specifically targeted astrocytes. Now, drugs targeting astrocyte malfunctions can be identified using patient cells.”
Fossati’s team built on their previously published protocols for converting stem cells into glial cells such as microglia and oligodendrocytes to identify a protein marker, CD49f, which is expressed in astrocytes