Keynote 2: Stem Cells and Autism - Can we model human development in a dish?

Breakthroughs in stem cell biology have enabled a new approach to the study of neuropsychiatry. We can now take a tissue sample from an individual - a skin or hair biopsy, or just a blood sample - and from that tissue grow a population of cells. Using new ‘reprogramming’ technology, we can turn those ordinary cells into stem cells, that can generate the entire range of cell types in the body, including brain cells. This allows us to make these reprogrammed stem cells from both individuals with an autism spectrum condition (ASC) or ‘neurotypical’ development, and to differentiate them in culture into brain cells. We can then compare how the cells from the donors with ASC develop compared to those from neurotypical individuals.

These studies are still in their infancy and can in any case only model the etiology of autism to a limited degree. Nonetheless, some interesting differences between autistic and neurotypical development are starting to emerge. We have compared neurons from neurotypical donors to those from autistic individuals that carry a specific genetic variant - a deletion in the SHANK3 gene. SHANK3 is one of the more common genetic copy number variants associated with ASC. We have discovered that the neurons from these autistic donors grow a different size and shape from those from neurotypical individuals. This talk will describe this new approach, and give a progress report on where we have reached.

Professor Jack Price, Institute of Psychiatry Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, London, UK

Jack Price is a Professor of Developmental Neurobiology and Head of the Cells & Behaviour Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London. Following his PhD in Neurobiology at University College London, and post-doctoral training at MIT, he ran a research group at the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill. He was Director of Molecular Neuroscience at SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals until joining King’s College London in 1998. He has published widely on neural stem cells as therapeutic agents, and has served on Working Parties on novel neurotechnologies with the Nuffield Council of Bioethics and the Academy of Medical Sciences. He led the Department of Trade and Industry Technology Mission to China, Singapore, and South Korea, and served on BIONET, the European Commission project into governance of Biomedicine in Europe and China. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, Cardiff, and is a consultant to ReNeuron Ltd, a UK Biotech Company developing stem cell therapeutics. Currently, he is part of three European consortia (EU-AIMS, StemBANCC, and MATRICS), funded by the European Commission, using stem cells to study brain disorders.