Brain-on-chip team collaborates with Stanford

Valerie Uytterhoeven is a staff scientist working on the brain-on-chip project in the lab of Prof. Patrik Verstreken at VIB-KU Leuven. Right before the corona crisis started, she spent half a year in the lab of Prof. Birgitt Schuele at Stanford University. Read about the project's progress and have a look at some pictures below.

How did you experience (academic) life in Stanford?

I really enjoyed my stay in Stanford; it was very useful to work closely with our collaborators across the ocean. Prof. Birgitt Schuele’s lab is smaller than ours in Leuven, but just like us they form a great team with lots of expertise and motivation. They are also well-equipped, and the Stanford campus is absolutely beautiful, with a lot of nature and all the facilities you need.


How did this collaboration start?

Our lab has extensive experience with animal models for Parkinson’s disease, but we increasingly realized that the complexity and heterogeneity of the disease requires us to also look at models that are more human-like, such as patient-derived cell cultures. That’s why we got in touch with Prof. Schuele, who heads the Udall Center for Parkinson’s Research, which has a great biobank with tissue samples from many Parkinson’s patients.

We designed a project together that really got kicked-off in early 2019 when we received a $1m Collaborative Science award from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Shortly afterwards, some colleagues and I joined their neurodegeneration network meeting in California, where we got really inspired by the initiative’s focus on a more efficient sharing of research tools and (patient) samples.

Pictures of Valerie in Stanford

How is the research advancing?

Our project is very ambitious and extensive. In Leuven, five interdisciplinary postdocs are currently working on this project. And we can still use many helping hands!

Our aim is to rebuild human brain cell networks, created by transforming skin cell samples donated by Parkinson’s patients, onto an electronic nano-chip. That would allow us to study their activity and interactions, differences between genetic backgrounds or diseases stages, and responses to potential new therapies.

Right now we can create brain cells from stem cells, but it’s much harder to do that directly from skin cells without intermediate steps. My experiments in Stanford have given me lots of new insights in how we can transform skin cells into different types of brain cells that are relevant to Parkinson’s disease. At the time, the nano-chip was still under development, but we are now ready to integrate all our gained knowledge into cellular networks on the chip.


Has the corona crisis affected the project?

During the lockdowns in Belgium and California our experimental work was put on hold. The plan was for a new German postdoc to be employed in Prof. Schuele’s lab to strengthen our team, but as long as the US borders are closed she’s working in Leuven instead. And the chip is ready, but has not yet made it to Stanford due to the corona crisis. Several planned conferences have been cancelled or converted into online events, which saves travel time, but has the big disadvantage that you cannot meet other researchers in person. So yes, the coronavirus pandemic has strongly affected our project, but we are doing extra efforts to catch up on the lost time.


What do you find most exciting about this project?

To me, the greatest aspect of this project is its close connection to patients. It’s very motivating to work with samples from actual, living Parkinson’s patients. While I was in Stanford, I even got the unique chance to meet a patient who came to visit the clinic and donated a small skin sample for our research. What’s more, he even decided to financially support part of the equipment and lab materials needed to develop the brain on chip.

Nothing is more inspiring than the thought of being able to make a difference. To collect those patient samples not just to advance our research, but to bring the people behind them one step closer to a personalized treatment. ▪