NUIG stem cell scientists team up with autism research group for new research project

Scientists at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI ) in NUI Galway have teamed up with the TCD autism research group to discover how stem cell technology can help further the understanding of autism and perhaps lead to the development of better treatments.

The results of this collaboration, including any recent breakthroughs, were outlined in a public forum entitled ‘Treating Autism, Can Stem Cells Help?’, which was held yesterday evening at 6pm at the Science Gallery at TCD.

The TCD autism research group has been investigating the genetic causes of autism for more than a decade and REMEDI has already begun producing iPS cells from the skin cells of people with autism and their siblings. Often seen as an alternative to embryonic stem cells, iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells ) are adult stem cells programmed to an embryonic-like state. IPS cells are increasingly of interest to scientists studying brain disorders such as autism, since accessing brain tissue is so difficult. Recent breakthroughs in autism genetics research have revealed that a small but significant minority of individuals with autism may have rare genetic changes that are potentially causative of their condition. This new research project, the first of its kind in Ireland, hopes to find out how rare genetic changes might impact on the functioning of brain cells, using iPS cell models. It is hoped that this research may ultimately help to identify drugs that could help to treat symptoms of the disease pathology. TCD’s Autism Research Group, and REMEDI scientists are reaching out to families who may be willing to participate in this innovative research.

Yesterday’s forum included talks by Professor Louise Gallagher, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and principal investigator of the TCD Autism Research Group, who discussed the recent breakthroughs in autism genetics emerging from the research. REMEDI’s outreach officer Danielle Nicholson also talked about stem cell technology and Professor Sanbing Shen, professor of stem cell biology at REMEDI, discussed the work from his lab which has begun producing iPS cells from the skin cells of people with autism and their siblings. The event was chaired by Dr Geraldine Leader, director of Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Research (ICAN ) at NUI Galway.

“Our research in autism genetics over the last 10 years or more has revealed interesting rare genetic causes of autism. By applying this new and exciting technology to further investigate autism we may identify the underlying mechanisms of these genetic anomalies in causing autistic spectrum disorders”, explains Professor Louise Gallagher.

Professor Sanbing Shen explains the science: “We are in the very early stages of research, but by reprogramming skin cells, we may provide a way to study neuronal cells in autism and to test new therapies. These iPS cells can specialise into different cell types, raising the possibility to treat patients with their own stem cells. This is exciting news for people who are affected by conditions that have no treatment.”

NUI Galway has become a leading centre of translational research in adult stem cells involving its National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science (NCBES ) and REMEDI, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland. The REMEDI team, which includes Professor Timothy O’Brien and Professor Frank Barry, are partnering with academics and clinicians from all over Ireland including Trinity College Dublin, the Royal College of Surgeons and Galway University Hospitals, to study iPS cells and their clinical potential in the treatment of many different diseases.


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