Human astrocyte progenitors and immature astrocytes, created from induced pluripotent stem cells, form an “astrosphere” inside a Petri dish. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
A star (cell) is born
Astrocytes are star-shaped (the name derives from the Greek words for star and cell) glial cells. They are the most abundant cell type in the human brain, and for good reason: They have a lot of jobs, from providing biochemical support of the endothelial cells that form the blood-brain barrier to delivering nutrients to nervous system tissue to helping repair the spinal cord after traumatic injury.
Neurons attract most of the attention, but researchers are increasingly investigating the roles and potential of astrocytes in treating a host of neurological harms and diseases.
For example, a CIRM-supported “disease team” of scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is investigating the possibility of transplanting healthy astrocytes derived from stem cells into patients suffering from amytrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The work is based, in part, upon encouraging findings in an ALS mouse model, conducted by Don Cleveland, PhD, and colleagues.
More recently, UC Davis scientists underscored the potential therapeutic value of astrocytes, reporting in the journal Nature Communications that the cells’ “calm” nature may make them best suited for some future stem cell-based neurological therapies.
“Astrocytes are often considered just ‘housekeeping’ cells because of their supportive roles to neurons, but they’re actually much more sophisticated,” said study co-author Wenbin Deng in a news release.
“They are critical to several brain functions and are believed to protect neurons from injury and death. They are not excitable cells like neurons and are easier to harness. We wanted to explore their potential in treating neurological disorders, beginning with stroke.”
Of course, success is neither guaranteed nor looming, but if it happens, astrocytes will have a starring role.