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Scope 67: Cell sacrifice in the line of duty

24 October 2018

What happens when you deprive a key brain cell such as an astrocyte of its essential energy-generating components? That’s the question Dr Melanie McConnell and her brain cancer biology team at the Malaghan Institute asked in a recently-completed research project, funded by the estate of Desley Mackey. Originally looking at the role mitochondrial transfer plays in brain biology, what the team discovered was far more unusual, and has real implications for treating neurodegenerative disease.

“Astrocytes are a type of brain cell that support neurons to function properly,” says Dr McConnell. “We originally developed an astrocyte cell line which could be deprived of its ability to make energy, to look at how these cells might be supported under stressful conditions.”

“What we found has intrigued the wider brain research community. We knew that cells communicated with each other, but we didn’t realise that this could extend to whole cells ‘sacrificing’ themselves. In particular, we saw stem cells fuse with the stressed astrocytes to restore the health of these critical brain cells.”

Deteriorating astrocyte function plays an important role for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease. By showing a new way stem cells work to support other cell types like astrocytes, Dr McConnell and her team’s work is shedding light on how certain stem cell therapies may work in preserving brain function during disease.