Ferraiuolo Lab on the road

Establishing and maintaining scientific collaborations around the globe is an integral part of how our lab works. We pride ourselves on being open to working with different teams, exchanging ideas, and lending our expertise. To that end, recently, a few of our lab members, Marianne, Ana and Monika, have embarked on some exciting ventures outside of SITraN, representing our lab at home and abroad.

Marianne visited Uppsala University in Sweden at the end of 2021 as part of the EU Joint Programme – Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND) project, which includes 6 partners and 2 external collaborators. The Consortium, jointly led by Professors Azzouz and Ferraiuolo, aims to generate a model of the spinal cord to study amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Thanks to travel funding from the Sheffield BRC she brought astrocytes and neural precursor cells (NPCs) from our lab to a lab’s collaborator in Sweden, where they were cultured. The NPCs were differentiated into motor neuron progenitors, and 3D printed with the astrocytes into gelatine scaffolds, using the team in Uppsala’s expertise in 3D printing of cells. This was the first step in combining cell types found in the spinal cord into a 3D structure. It is hoped that this trip will provide a good foundation for future attempts at 3D printing cells with more cell types. Marianne will be travelling to Switzerland in May in order to print astrocytes, motor neuron progenitors, and microglia using a more advanced 3D printer. 3D structures containing cells will provide a much more physiological model of how cells grow in the spinal cord, and hopefully this will be very useful in identifying mechanisms of disease and potential treatment targets. 

Ana has been granted a Fulbright Fellowship from the Spanish Government to complete a portion of the experimental part of her PhD in the United States. This prestigious program provides grants for, amongst others, research projects, and the aim of Fulbright is to promote the exchange of not only knowledge, but also culture and diplomacy within the US. As part of this program, Ana will model the human blood-brain barrier (BBB) in vitro in the context of a disease in order to research new therapeutic approaches. The BBB is a complex vascular system that protects the brain from external agents, including viruses, toxins and drugs. Hence, BBB integrity is key to protect the brain and guarantee its health and function over time; while understanding its physiological function will help us deliver drugs to the brain more efficiently. Ana’s research is focused on using human stem cells to model the BBB for a better understanding of its function and malfunction in many disorders, including ALS. Ana’s placement takes place at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. There, she will be working on paediatrics disorders, such as Rett syndrome. Ana will apply the knowledge she acquired in SITraN to further investigate the BBB dysfunction in Rett syndrome as well as ALS. Ana could not be more excited about this new experience, which will allow her to learn new techniques, validate her in vitro model, and exchange expertise between her home and host institutions. Afterwards, she will return to Spain to finalise and submit her PhD thesis. 

Ana at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Ana Aragón.

Monika was awarded the UKRI Innovation Scholars Secondment grant last year to continue her postdoctoral training. The scheme aims to encourage productive collaborations between academia and industry and a large part of this endeavour involves a two-year training period with industrial partners. She has started her knowledge exchange secondment in February at Cambridge Science Park-based company called Cerevance, who specialise in next-generation sequencing technology called NETSseq. This cutting-edge technique allows them to identify cell type-specific targets from a mixed cell population, such as tissue from patients or cell cultures containing two or more cell types in one dish. Monika’s goal is to try and understand what changes occur in astrocytes that cause them to become toxic to motor neurons in ALS, and why the same astrocytes might not be toxic to other types of neurons. “We have seen evidence of differential toxicity in vitro before but we still do not understand what processes and mechanisms lead to it. The marriage of our co-culture model of ALS and NETSseq will hopefully unveil some clues. We are combining two innovative approaches to studying disease and I could not be more excited to get started!” said Monika. Monika will return to Sheffield after her secondment to validate her findings. And, with any luck, she will let us take advantage of all the new techniques she’s learnt 🙂

Join us in wishing Marianne, Ana, and Monika the best of luck on their adventures!

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