University of Otago Cure Kids professor of paediatric genetics, Stephen Robertson, led a team which made a discovery that could lead to a cure for babies born with brain damage. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
A University of Otago-led research team has made a
''surprise'' scientific breakthrough which could lead to a
cure for infants born with brain damage.
University of Otago Cure Kids professor of paediatric
genetics, Stephen Robertson, led a team of international
geneticists which discovered a key piece of information about
how the human brain develops in utero.
The team deciphered how neural stem cells - which build the
brain in utero and are present in newborns - communicate with
each other, Prof Robertson said.
The discovery could be the first step in understanding how to
harness neural stem cells - possibly using drugs - to repair
brain damage in infants, he said.
''In that first year of life there is real potential to
harness ... these stem cells.''
This was because new neurons derived from neural stem cells
could pick up the job of damaged or dead neurons.
If the stem cells could be harnessed they could repair brain
damage suffered from a range of sources, including being
affected by a lack of oxygen at birth.
Finding a way to kick neural stem cells into action could
still be a long way off though, he said.
''I talk about [the discovery as] a toe hold at the beginning
of a very tall mountain.''
New research would be needed and harnessing stem cells might
prove to difficult.
''We have got something to aim our guns at now. This is a
The discovery was made while researching a rare genetic
disorder which affected brain development.
The significance of the work lay in finding two key genes
that underpinned the disorder and the language these genes
used to conduct brain development.
''It was picking up on this mode of communication which the
developing brain employs, which was the surprise,'' Prof
A Munich-based specialist in brain cell biology, Magdalena
Gotz, who was a lead collaborator in the project, said the
finding was ''new and significant''.
''It has been enormously satisfying to find another piece in
this jigsaw and put it in place,'' she said.
The finding recently appeared as a feature article in
Nature Genetics, a research journal.