Stem cells join muscle, spinal cord cells in ‘human-on-a-chip’ simulation

November 24, 2011

University of Central Florida researchers, for the first time, have used stem cells to grow neuromuscular junctions between human muscle cells and human spinal cord cells, the key connectors used by the brain to communicate and control muscles in the body.

.The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) have recently launched an ambitious plan to jump-start research in “human-on-a-chip” models by making available at least $140 million in grant funding.

The goal is to produce systems that include various miniature organs connected in realistic ways to simulate human body function. This would make it possible, for instance, to test drugs on human cells well before they could safely and ethically be tested on living humans. The technique could potentially be more effective than testing in mice and other animals currently used to screen promising drug candidates and to develop other medical treatments.

Such nerve-muscle junctions might prove to be important research tools. These junctions play key roles in Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in spinal cord injury, and in other debilitating or life threatening conditions. With further development, the team’s techniques could be used to test new drugs or other treatments for these conditions even before more expansive chip-based models are developed.

Ref.: Xiufang Guo et al., Neuromuscular junction formation between human stem cell-derived motoneurons and human skeletal muscle in a defined system, Biomaterials, 2011 [doi:10.1016/j.biomaterials.2011.09.014]