20 Feb 2012

3D cellular model brings powerful new approach to spinal cord injury research

A new 3-dimensional (3D) tissue model recreating interactions between cell types could provide valuable insight into how cells in the spinal cord repair after damage. The 3D cell culture system, developed by The Open University, mimics the cellular features of the spinal cord after damage, enabling scientists to study their behaviour in a similar way to how they normally function in the body.

The research, published in Tissue Engineering, shows how an interface develops between the injured and surrounding tissue after spinal cord injury. The interface inhibits neuronal regeneration, and this research will aid development of treatment to encourage repair.

Dr James Phillips, Lecturer in Health Sciences, explained: “Astrocytes are central nervous system (CNS) cells that normally support neuronal activity, but they change behaviour following damage and can inhibit regeneration. With our model, we can simulate the interaction between astrocytes and regenerating neurons after CNS injury.

“We found at first the astrocytes in our model were in a resting state, and then became reactive over 15 days, just like they do following CNS damage. As the astrocytes became reactive we were able to monitor the way in which the neurons interacted with them – the neurons grew well in their part of the model but when they reached the boundary with the reactive astrocytes they could not penetrate it, mimicking the kind of regeneration failure associated with spinal cord damage.”

By using the culture system, the research team can monitor both cell types continuously and control variables to test specific scientific questions. The 3D model provides a powerful new tool for neuroscience research and provides a new way to test the development of new therapies.

Editors’ Notes
The paper, Engineering an integrated cellular interface in 3-dimensional hydrogel cultures permits monitoring of reciprocal astrocyte and neuronal responses, is the third in a series to develop a powerful new way of studying nervous system cells in 3D culture.

The authors are Emma East PhD, Jon P. Golding PhD and James B. Phillips PhD from The Open University Faculty of Science.

They received support from The Wellcome Trust.

The study will be published in Tissue Engineering, Part C, Vol 18, Iss 8 (August 2012), but is available online now (link right).

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