Inside a lab at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, researchers are doing something truly remarkable. They are growing tiny versions of developing human brains in order to study everything from Alzheimer’s disease to the Zika virus. Alysson Muotri is the co-director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program and leads the team researching brain organoids. He recently sat down with Dr. David Granet on Health Matters to discuss the endless possibilities of his research.
Muotri’s organoids are often referred to as “mini-brains,” but they are far from what that name might suggest. The organoids are grown from stem cells, which are harvested from living tissue, such as skin cells. Researchers give those stem cells instructions to become neural cells. Eventually they form tiny clusters of neural cells, about the size of a pea. Those clusters have been shown to exhibit some of the same characteristics of developing human brains, including firing electrical signals in specific patterns. But, the organoids do not contain every type of brain tissue, and have no vascularization.
Despite the differences with the human brain, organoids have proven useful in understanding and treating disease. One of the major successes of Muotri’s research was finding and testing an existing drug to treat mothers infected with Zika virus. The drug can prevent the disease from being passed to the baby and causing microcephaly. Muotri is hoping his lab will continue to have success using the organoids as an effective brain model to find more cures, and provide a deeper understanding of brain development and disease. And, his work isn’t limited to Earth. Muotri recently launched his organoids into space for a groundbreaking study.
Watch — Using Stem Cells to Research the Brain – Health Matters
Ours is a water planet. Technology is shaping our uses, both as foe and ally. It has made humans the dominant predator and provides us food, gives us half the oxygen we breathe and created many maritime jobs. But technology has also raised CO2 levels, caused acidic oceans, threatened ocean biodiversity and created grand climate challenges.
Marine biologists like Doug McCauley at UC Santa Barbara are also using technology to promote ocean health and provide a balance. In this talk, McCauley describes examples of technology used to help the oceans and marine biodiversity. He shows systems that track whale activity and communicate it to ships so they know where to slow down to avoid collisions. He describes technology to monitor marine protected areas, image recognition techniques to study the endangered giant sea bass and electronic tags to follow sharks.
McCauley began his career as a fisherman in the Port of Los Angeles. Eventually he migrated to marine science and UC Santa Barbara. McCauley has degrees in political science and biology from the UC Berkeley. His PhD research was done at Stanford University where he studied the ecology of sharks, giant parrotfish, and coral reef ecosystems. McCauley’s science is motivated by the belief that we must better understand how complex ocean ecosystems work if we want to better protect them from threats like overfishing, climate change, and pollution.
Watch — Technology: Friend or Foe for the Future of our Oceans
Science fiction has long promised an age of interplanetary human existence. Scenes of spaceships hopping from one galaxy to the next are so common, it seems almost inevitable that future generations will one day vacation on Mars. But, if we are ever going to achieve life on other planets, we first have to figure out if the human body can tolerate it.
Some of the best data we have on the subject comes from American astronaut Scott Kelly. Kelly spent a year living on the International Space Station while his twin brother Mark, also an astronaut, was on Earth. Scientists from all over the country studied the impact life in space had on Scott Kelly, and compared changes in his body to his brother.
One of those scientists was UC San Diego Professor of Medicine, Michael G. Ziegler, MD. In a recent talk at UC San Diego Extension’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Ziegler detailed some of the more interesting findings from the study. Scott Kelly lost weight. There were significant changes to his gene expression. He lost collagen. His carotid artery thickened. His bones became less dense. His eye shape changed, forcing him to wear glasses. While he was in space, his performance on cognitive tests improved. But, his performance plummeted after returning to Earth, and never quite returned to pre-launch levels.
Despite all of this, Ziegler has reason to be hopeful about long-term space travel. He says the year in space study illuminated many of the challenges, and gave researchers some ideas of how to overcome them. Still, it’s probably a little early to start planning your trip to the red planet.
Watch — How a Year in Space Affects the Human Body with Dr. Michael G. Ziegler — Osher UC San Diego
Our planet is experiencing worldwide growth in energy consumption and CO2 emission and is experiencing temperature rise and climate change at an accelerating rate. A new series from the Institute of Energy Efficiency at UC Santa Barbara describes a path to reducing our energy consumption and CO2 emission.
The series kicks off with John Bowers, Director of the Institute of Energy Efficiency and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Materials, discussing the evolution of photonics and what the future holds for more efficient, higher capacity data centers, which are important for machine learning and data processing.
Fiber optics has transformed our work and, indeed, our lives, by enabling the Internet through low-cost, high-capacity fiber optic transmission. In data centers, fiber optics is replacing electrical cables, thereby allowing for higher and more economical performance.
Watch — A New Focus for Energy Efficiency
The vastness of the ocean is only surpassed by the biodiversity within it; from familiar and unfamiliar mega-fauna, to every microbe and virus inhabiting every corner of the seas – from the deep freeze of the Antarctic to the scorching plumes of volcanic seafloor vents.
Paul Jensen describes how he and other researchers are tapping into the biodiversity of the world’s oceans as a relatively new resource for natural product drug discovery. Jensen is at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
Watch — Marine Natural Products: From Sea to Pharmacy