Could this new 3D cell culture model help researchers better predict disease progression in ALS?  

Award: $125,000 

Collaborators: Dr. Yasser Iturria-Medina, McGill University 

When Dr. Thomas Durcan, director of The Neuro’s Early Drug Discovery Unit (EDDU), found out his team had been awarded a 2022 Discovery Grant, “It was a very happy day for us all.”  

“All” includes his EDDU research associate, Dr. Mathilde Chaineau, and PhD student María José Castellanos Montiel, two of the key players on the winning proposal. 

Dr. Durcan’s project uses an innovative model ten years in the making, thanks in large part to researchers at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital). 

The model uses donor human blood cells that have been transformed into neurons, astrocytes, and microglia – all important cell types in the brain – to create 3D structures called spheroids. By better representing the multidimensional nature of the brain, the spheroids will help scientists discover new interactions and processes that may be happening in a diseased brain. 

For the ALS CanadaBrain Canada Discovery Grant project, the team will use blood samples from people living with ALS to create spheroids that will offer new insights into how microglia and astrocytes interact together with neurons in a 3D ALS disease environment. They will then work with Dr. Yasser Iturria-Medina, a computational biologist at McGill University, to analyze what’s happening on the molecular level to generate new insights.  

“Through this multimodal approach, we can hopefully find disease signatures that we would miss by just looking at the data in a simpler way,” says Dr. Durcan.  

“From a scientific perspective, it’s very exciting for us to get these funds and to see this great project moving forward,” Ms. Montiel adds. “We’re going to build a model to study things that are not very well understood – we’re going to find out something new.”  

This is a very exciting collaboration. Dr. Durcan and his team’s innovative approach towards data analysis has the potential to revolutionize the ALS research landscape in Canada.”

Dr. Viviane Poupon, President and CEO of Brain Canada

Keeping patients at the heart of the work 

This research project relies on the generosity of people to donate their blood samples, something all three team members expressed gratitude for.  

“Patients are going through a very hard time with their family, but they still find time to consent to give us their samples,” Dr. Chaineau says. “Research is always teamwork, and I include the patients as part of that team.”  

When we spoke to the researchers, all three had just attended the 2023 ALS Canada Research Forum, which brings people living with ALS, clinicians, families, and scientists together. It is an excellent opportunity for researchers to put faces to the research projects they dedicate their time to.   

At this year’s event, the sense of hope was palpable, the team says.  

“The patients being so positive pushed us in the right direction,” says Dr. Chaineau. “Every time we go to an ALS Canada Research Forum, we come back ready to go.”’ 

“There are people that rely on us to get up every day early in the morning and work and do what we do,” adds Dr. Durcan. “I think that’s what really keeps us motivated.”  

Ms. Montiel agrees. “As scientists, it’s nice to know who we’re helping, and that we’re giving back to the community.” 

The ALS Canada-Brain Canada Discovery Grant Program has been made possible by the Canada Brain Research Fund (CBRF), an innovative arrangement between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada), Brain Canada Foundation and ALS Canada 

To find out more about the 2022 ALS Canada-Brain Canada Discovery Grants, read the full press release here.