On Monday, April 24, the NeuroNA Human Cellular Neuroscience Platform, supported by the NeuroNA Foundation, was inaugurated at Campus Biotech in Geneva. It will provide a valuable resource to the neuroscience community of the Lemanic region with the aim to advance our understanding of the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, as well as neuropsychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and depression. Scientists will work on modeling neurodevelopmental disorders and developing brain organoids and assembloids. To mark the opening of its hub, the NeuroNA Foundation will host Prof. Sergiu P. Pasca, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Stanford University, to speak about his most recent research at Campus Biotech. Prof. Pasca has pioneered the use of stem cells towards the creation of three-dimensional models of human neural circuits. Being able to study such models constitutes a paradigm shift for neuroscience research worldwide—and is now a reality in Geneva. The Human Cellular Neuroscience Platform, supported by the NeuroNA Foundation, provides an opportunity for collaboration with research laboratories, particularly in the Lake Geneva region. 

Induced pluripotent stem cells—known as iPS cells—can transform and give rise to all cell types constituting an adult organism, including human (Rev Med Suisse 2012). Those iPS are reprogrammable cells. These cells can, for example, be derived from the skin or blood of a person, in this case a patient, if one wishes to study the mechanisms of a neurodevelopmental disorder or a neuropsychiatric disease. This technological breakthrough was rewarded with the Nobel Prize, awarded to Prof. Shinya Yamanaka in 2012. These cells, once differentiated into brain cells (neurons and glia), can then form three-dimensional structures called organoids. Organoids reproduce to a certain extent the cellular complexity of some brain circuits. Brain organoids are not “minibrains”. The NeuroNA Center focuses on the study of brain mechanisms (see factsheet “brain organoids, glossary and frequently asked questions”).

“Our knowledge of brain structure and function in nonhuman animals is highly advanced, but we are woefully ignorant of the vastly larger and more sophisticated human brain and how its assembly goes awry in disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.” Laboratory of Prof. Sergiu P. Pasca, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Stanford University: mission and discoveries.

One way to mimic brain development is to watch what happens during the development of the different circuits that constitute the brain. The creation of three-dimensional models of human neural circuits is a technique that allows the emergence of new tools for the study of neural development and the exploration of cellular and molecular mechanisms potentially involved in psychiatric disorders. “The work of Prof. Sergiu P. Pasca and his innovative approach have already gained international recognition. I am pleased to have him join us for the inauguration of the NeuroNA research center at the Campus Biotech in Geneva,” explains Pierre J. Magistretti, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience, EPFL, UNIL and UNIGE.

He goes on to say, “The basic principles of neuronal and glial cells’ function appear to be, as far as we can tell, somewhat analogous among humans and rodents. However, rodents do not spontaneously develop psychiatric diseases or neurodevelopmental disorders. iPS cells have opened up the possibility of studying mechanisms of cell function from patient tissue in human cells.  They help scientists to better understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders,” said Prof. Magistretti.

A Breakthrough in the Study of Brain Mechanisms at the Cellular Level

Being able to study human cells and their molecular mechanisms was the missing link among scientific research. “While transgenic rodents can provide interesting insights into the conditions of a disease or disorder from a basic science perspective, it may not always be applicable to clinical applications due to differences between humans and animals.”, adds Prof. Magistretti. Induced pluripotent cells have created an important bridge, along with other neuroscience approaches, to better understand psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. By comparing the properties of cells from patients and individuals without neurodevelopmental disorders, scientists can observe how their circuits form. Laboratories worldwide are growing iPS cells, and an increasing number of these labs are developing organoids for a wide range of tissue types.

With the support of the NeuroNA Foundation, the NeuroNA platform became operational in just one year. Prof. Denis Jabaudon, Head of the Department of Fundamental Neurosciences at the University of Geneva and Fides Zenk, who was recently appointed assistant professor at EPFL with the foundation’s support, are associated with the platform. To remain up-to-date with the latest developments in the field, any research platform requires strong connections with research teams. The NeuroNA Foundation is committed to open collaboration applications.

In line with interdisciplinary work

Prof. Magistretti founded and served as the first director of the National Centre of Competence in Research Synapsy (NCCR Synapsy), supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne, and the EPFL. NCCR Synapsy aimed to improve the understanding of the biological basis of psychiatric diseases. For 12 years, it brought together almost 200 researchers from the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne, the EPFL and Basel, resulting in over 900 scientific publications. NCCR Synapsy also supported five clinical cohorts (schizophrenia – 22q11 microdeletion cohort, autism, early stress, mood disorders), developed cutting-edge technologies to study the human and murine brain, and trained a new generation of clinicians specialized in neuroscience research. This knowledge, synergy and technology is available to the Synapsy Centers for Neuroscience Research in Mental Health, which continue the legacy of the NCCR Synapsy, bringing together all scientists and research in this field at the Universities of Geneva, Lausanne and the EPFL. With the support of the NeuroNA Foundation, neurodevelopmental mechanisms in human cells can now be studied, furthering the understanding of the biological mechanisms behind neuropsychiatric diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders. Moreover, this research contributes to reducing the stigma surrounding such disorders.