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Scientist changing media on her iPSC-derived neuron cultures © Anna Lukala
Researchers working in the culture lab at the University of Oxford

When a person exhibits symptoms that are characteristic of cognitive decline, such as memory loss and slowness of movement, scientists need to try and understand what is happening on a genetic and cellular level. iPSCs derived from the people who take part in long-term health studies are a uniquely valuable resource.

Starting at the University of Edinburgh: samples from the Lothian birth cohort

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have been studying the Lothian birth cohorts since 1936. This incredible population study comprises generous volunteers whose cognitive ability and other data have been tracked since childhood. In 2017 the Edinburgh team took blood samples from 24 individuals in order to develop stem cells. Thanks to the existing study of these people, the scientists were able to take samples from three distinct groups: cognitively healthy people; people showing signs of mild cognitive decline; and people showing stronger decline. The samples were first sent to Cedar in the US for initial reprogramming into stem cells.

iPSCs allow scientists to to create living, patient-specific brain cells and study their behaviour outside the body. These ‘disease in a dish’ models offer a safe, non-invasive way of researching a difficult-to-access organ. - Dr Deepak Kumar, University of Oxford

 Continuing at the University of Oxford: expanding the stem cell resource

The Edinburgh scientists then shared the Lothian cohort stem cells resource with scientists in Oxford who are working to expand these cells. This process – developing stem cells from blood or skin cells and expanding the sample – is known as ‘reprogramming’, and is highly complex.

 Use at Cardiff, UCL, Cambridge: specialised expertise in particular cell types

Each of the sites in the Stem Cells Network has highly-developed expertise in producing different brain cell types from the iPSCs. Individual departments will use the shared patient-specific iPSC stem cells to study the development of key brain cells, including glial cells and dopaminergic neurons. They will compare the characteristics and the behaviour of diseased and non-diseased neurons outside of the brain.