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26 October, 2018 - 10:35 By Tony Quested

Axol in Oxbridge initiative to grow brains in the laboratory

Research into neurological disorders – increasingly a cause of death – has taken a major advance through an Oxbridge collaboration backed by BBSRC funding.

Researchers at the University of Oxford have formed a new industry partnership with Axol Bioscience of Cambridge, which leverages Nobel Prize-winning stem cell technology.

The partners have secured funding from the BBSRC to collaborate in creating human models of the cerebellum with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for studies of neurological disorders. The cerebellum is one of the most identifiable parts of the brain. It is extremely important for being able to perform everyday voluntary tasks such as walking and writing. It is also essential to being able to stay balanced and upright.

Neurological disorder-associated deaths have increased by 39 per cent in the UK since 2001 with over 10 million people living with a neurological condition that has a significant impact on their lives. 

Due to a lack of translatable models that provide an accurate basis to study neurological disorders in humans, developing new treatments and therapies for these conditions is challenging. However, this could soon change.

Esther Becker, Associate Professor in Neurobiology at the University of Oxford, said: “This collaboration allows us for the first time to study developing human nerve cells in the laboratory and to coax them into forming a brain-like structure. In our case, we plan to instruct the human iPSCs to organise into a cerebellum-like tissue.

“I’m very excited to be working with Axol on this project. It will allow us to take advantage of their expertise in the iPSC field and accelerate the future applications of our research.”

Professor Becker made the BBSRC joint-funding application earlier this year after being introduced to Axol Bioscience, a biotech firm which specialises in human cell culture technologies, through IN-PART’s matchmaking platform for university-industry collaboration.

The Oxford-Axol collaboration has been awarded BBSRC funding in the form of an iCASE studentship, a joint-managed PhD project that will develop a reproducible method for generating specific and mature subpopulations of human cerebellar neurons in the lab.

“This research is of great value to the scientific community as there is a need for relevant translatable models in which to test and develop drugs for CNS [central nervous system] disorders,” said Yichen Shi, CEO and co-founder of Axol Bioscience.

“Current models used during drug development tend to be immortalised cell lines or animals, both of which do not fully represent human cell phenotypes or disease.”

The majority of new candidate drugs developed to treat neurological disorders fail in Phase II and III clinical trials, with very few making it to Phase IV approval.

What’s more, in recent years there have been significant project shutdowns and facility closures in the neuroscience wings of the pharmaceutical industry. This is thought to be due to safety issues, low success rates, and increasing R & D costs.

The goal of the Oxford-Axol collaboration will be to model aspects of human cerebellar development that could in the future be used as platforms for the screening of future therapeutic treatments. 

The Oxford-Axol researchers will carry out extensive studies into brain development, as well as the molecular and cellular processes that go wrong in central nervous system diseases.

“It’s fantastic to see that the iCASE studentship was awarded. I look forward to seeing how the project develops and hope this is the start of a great relationship between the two institutes,” said Dr Siobhan Dennis, Industry Partnerships Manager at the University of Oxford.

“This was a completely new interaction and one that would not have occurred without the project being presented on IN-PART.”

The successful PhD candidate will benefit from the Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership core skills and career development training while spending time in the Becker lab and during their industrial placement at Axol Bioscience’s labs at Chesterford Research Park – at the heart of the Cambridge life sciences cluster.

Axol’s Nobel Prize-winning iPSC technology is complemented by a full range of primary human cells and other reagents which it provides to scientists worldwide. Axol has continued a rapid spurt of expansion by opening a new operational hub in Massachusetts to support the company’s customer base in the United States and Canada.

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Axol Bioscience CEO and co-founder, Yichen Shi

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