Stem cell research at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) has received a further boost. Junior Group Leader Dr. Mina Gouti and her research group are developing a novel cell culture system that can be used to model neurodegenerative diseases and develop new therapeutic approaches. The researchers generate parallel spinal cord nerve and muscle cells in vitro in order to investigate how neurodegenerative diseases develop and progress.
In spring of 2016, Dr. Mina Gouti started setting up the new “Stem cell modeling of development and disease” research group. The focus is on neurodegenerative diseases. During normal embryonic development, the nerve cells, muscles and bones of the spinal cord develop from a bipotential precursor population of cells called neuromesodermal progenitors (NMPs). The central question Gouti and her team are addressing is how such tissues arise during embryonic development in humans and in mice, and how they influence each other.
For this purpose she uses pluripotent stem cells. In vitro she encourages these to selectively differentiate into NMP, from which nerve and muscle cells can be generated. “The cultivation of NMP cells will help us learn more about the normal development of the human body in a part of the embryo that could not otherwise be investigated. The in vitro model will also help us find out more about how defects in the early development of these tisues can lead to susceptibility to disease in adulthood,” says Gouti.
Mina Gouti, born in Greece in 1977, studied molecular biology and molecular medicine in England. She completed her PhD in the laboratory of Dr. Anthony Gavalas in 2008. There she studied the role of Hox genes in the anterior – posterior patterning of the central nervous system using as model system embryonic stem cells. After working in research institutes in London and Athens, she most recently spent four years in the laboratory of Dr. James Briscoe as a FEBS fellow and Senior Investigator Scientist at the Francis Crick Institute (former NIMR–MRC) in London.
There, she developed a system that can be used to differentiate embryonic stem cells from mice and humans simultaneously into two cell types: neural cells of the spinal cord, and the neighboring tissue, the paraxial mesoderm. “This system has the great advantage that it can generate both cell types in the culture dish at the same time, which creates new possibilities for studying and treating neurodegenerative diseases,” says Gouti.
At the MDC, Gouti now aims to find out more about the mechanisms that decide the fate of the cell and regulate the differentiation to neural cells of the spinal cord and the paraxial mesoderm in humans. Furthermore, Gouti will generate specific cell types for treatment purposes, deriving these from human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). She will also model and analyze neurodegenerative diseases with iPS cells from patients. The aim of this work is to model neurodegenerative diseases so as to ultimately be able to treat them better.
Gouti and her research group are actively involved in iMed, which includes five other Helmholtz centers in the Research Field Health besides the MDC. The program aims to interlink and coordinate the centers’ research activities in the field of personalized medicine and, through collaboration with local clinical partners, to promote the rapid transfer of research results into clinical practice.