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Stimulation of neural stem cells to facilitate brain repair

Project details

Giada Vanacore
The Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge
Research area
Brain and spinal cord injury
Funding type
PhD studentship
Awarded in
March 2023


Following completion of a Masters in Biomolecular Science in 2022, Giada worked as a research assistant in the lab of Dr Sumru Bayin at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. This has enabled her to combine her interests in neurodevelopment and brain plasticity with the study of neural stem cell biology and regeneration. The award of this PhD studentship allows her to build on this, taking forward research focused on how to stimulate neural stem cells to facilitate repair of the brain after injury.

About acquired brain injuries

Acquired brain injuries – such as stroke and traumatic brain injury – represent a major health problem. Survivors of such injuries are often left with serious, long-term, life-limiting consequences. The level of disability varies enormously but many people have a seriously compromised quality of life and need long-term rehabilitation to maximise function and independence.

There is a desperate need for regenerative therapies that will help restore function in patients with serious injuries.

Read more: About acquired brain injury

Stimulation of neural stem cells to faciltate brain repair

The cerebellum is an area at the back of the brain that regulates movement, coordination and balance as well as many cognitive and social functions such as emotion, learning and memory. Damage to the cerebellum can impact all of these functions.

In newborn mice, the cerebellum is highly regenerative and can recover from the loss of its cells but this regenerative potential greatly diminishes in adulthood.

Giada's research focuses on a population of 'progenitor' cells in the cerebellum that are able to generate and mature into specific cell types. During development, different progenitors mediate the development of specific types of brain cells, allowing the brain to perform complex functions.

Research in the Bayin lab has identified a population of progenitors in the newborn cerebellum that is responsible for regeneration following major cell loss. These special progenitors do not normally generate neurons but upon injury they are capable of changing their fate to produce different cell types, including neurons.  

Whilst similar progenitor-like cells exist in the adult cerebellum, they do not proliferate in the same way and do not generate neurons after injury.  

The team believe that it could be possible to induce regeneration and repair injury in the adult brain by activating the developmental mechanisms that facilitate the regeneration of the newborn cerebellum. They are targeting two genes that have been shown to induce the proliferation of heart cells, and hope that they will be able to induce progenitor proliferation in the cerebellum and facilitate repair.  

Impact: what difference will this research make?

Giada’s research will fill a major knowledge gap in our understanding of the regenerative mechanisms in the brain, while determining the value of a new therapeutic approach to stimulate the regenerative ability of the progenitor - or progenitor-like - cells in the adult brain.

As well as advancing knowledge of neural stem cell biology and brain repair, through this studentship we are supporting the career development of a committed biomedical scientist, determined to improve the outlook for those affected by brain injury.

About Giada

Giada completed her Master's by Research in Biomolecular Science at the University of East Anglia in 2022, before taking up a research assistant post in the lab of Dr Sumru Bayin at the Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge.

Working in the Bayin lab has given Giada the opportunity to combine her interest in neurodevelopment and brain plasticity with the study of stem cell biology to identify opportunities to stimulate the regeneration of the adult brain. She has had the opportunity to learn techniques that will underpin her PhD research – designing innovative methods to repair the brain after injury.

Over time, I got interested in brain development and function to understand how this knowledge could lead to the generation of future therapies for brain disorders. During my BSc in biomedicine, I tailored my studies around stem/progenitor cell biology to learn about their role during embryonic development and regeneration.
Working on the process of adult neurogenesis, through my Master’s degree project, I was able to contribute to the field by identifying a factor that mediates the age-dependent changes in progenitors’ activity in a specific region of the brain. Being able to perform cutting-edge research and share my findings with the scientific community strengthened my commitment to pursue research and has prepared me to embark on a PhD in neuroscience.

Related projects

Acquired brain and spinal cord injury (including stroke) is one of our current research priorities, reflecting the large unmet need in this area. Our aim is to fund research to advance understanding of how to promote repair of the brain and spinal cord following injury.

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