A safe means of studying schizophrenia has been achieved, thanks to a science team combining the talents of The Salk Institute for Biological Studies and a range of other institutions.
They have found a method of recreating a patient’s brain cells in a Petri dish.
It is the pursuit of understanding what exactly underpins schizophrenia that they are chasing, and brings the researchers closer to understanding what it is that biologically underpins the ailment. It is believed that the new findings will have repercussions for the advancement of research beyond schizophrenia, and will go on to aid investigation into other mysterious illness such as bi-polar disorder and even autism.
They researches are hopeful that the pursuit of individualised treatment is now a step closer. The study itself has yet to be released, yet Gong Chen who is an associate professor at Penn State, an author of the study has detailed how they have done it.
First the scientists took skin cell samples from patients suffering from schizophrenia, and through use of molecular biology techniques they managed to reprogram the cells back into a stem cell state.
The cells now no longer have a specific function i.e. they are (pluripotent stem cells iPSCs.)
According to Chen, “During development, such stem cells differentiate into many diverse, specialized cell types, such as a muscle cell, a brain cell, or a blood cell.”
Once these were generated they were cultured towards becoming neurons (brain cells.)From this point the cells were compared against the actual brain cells of healthy individuals. It was found that yes in fact, the generated neurons were distinct to the schizophrenic patient, as in they were unable to forge as many connections with each other.
Another study author Kristen Brennand, then proceeded to test antipsychotic drug’s ability to get the cells communicating effectively. The drugs he selected were those which are most frequently prescribed. He stated, “Now, for the very first time, we have a model system that allows us to study how antipsychotic drugs work in live, genetically identical neurons from patients with known clinical outcomes, and we can start correlating pharmacological effects with symptoms,”
Chen made his contribution to the study in his use of electrophysiology techniques which tested the function of the generated neurons. He feels that the new method is advancement towards individualised medicine, in that it is patient specific. He said, “What’s so exciting about this approach is that we can examine patient-derived neurons that are perhaps equivalent to a particular patient’s own neural cells. Obviously, we don’t want to remove someone’s brain cells to experiment on, so recreating the patient’s brain cells in a Petri dish is the next best thing.”
He feels that through the use of this method it can be figured out exactly how any drug will affect that particular patient’s brain cells. This removes the need for the patient to first take the drug, leading to a lessening in side effects experienced. He said that the patient can now be their own guinea pig effectively without direct experimentation on their person.
It is felt now that from growing these schizophrenic brain cells in a dish it can be determined just how much the persons environment affects the condition that is believed to affect as much as one percent of the population. It allows for the environment to be removed from the equation and a focus put onto the underlying biology. One of the more interesting parts of the study was when one of the researchers used a modified form of the rabies virus to highlight the neuron connections.