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Summer Student 2021: Emily-Rose Martin

Summer Student 2021: Emily-Rose Martin

Designing an animal free method of growing neuron-like cells to study brain development.

Supervisor name and institution: Josan Gandawijaya, University of Exeter

Project summary:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders – it affects social interaction, communication and behaviours. ASD is estimated to affect 1-2% of the global population, and although there have been tremendous advances in our understanding of how gene mutations contribute to ASD risk, the specific causes underlying ASD and how they alter brain development is not well understood.

Neurons are one of the major cell types in the brain, forming networks of connections to process information. When neurons mature, their shape changes to produce the characteristic tree-like shape – this lays the foundation for the neuronal networks in the brain. The mechanisms controlling neuronal shape and maturation are pivotal for brain development. Importantly, irregular neuron shape is a characteristic of ASD, and many individuals affected by ASD carry mutations that disrupt genes controlling neuron shape. Therefore, a human-relevant neuron model will be useful for investigating the role of ASD candidate genes in neuron shape and maturation.

Scientists have successfully grown human neurons to study how their shape changes during maturation, however, the supply of these neurons is limited, and they stop growing once matured. Furthermore, growing human neurons is a time-consuming and expensive process. To overcome these issues, some scientists are using a type of neuron-like cells called SH-SY5Y cells. However, there is currently no standardised method of growing SH-SY5Y cells, with different laboratories implementing different strategies, and no laboratory managing to grow SH-SY5Y cells without the use of animal-derived materials.

During her summer project, Emily-Rose will work to establish a new method of growing neuron-like SH-SY5Y cells eliminating the need for animal-derived materials. The project will involve a wide range of cell culture and microscopy imaging techniques to analyse neuronal cell growth, maturity and shape.

Animals project will replace: Mice and rats.


Get to know Emily-Rose…

Why do you want to participate in animal replacement summer studentship?

I am fascinated with the processes underlying brain development, and I am eager to further my knowledge by working with Mr. Josan Gandawijaya and Dr. Asami Oguro-Ando at the RILD laboratories at the University of Exeter.

This summer research project will provide me with valuable and versatile laboratory skills and techniques that are applicable beyond the field of neuroscience.

How will the Summer Student Programme help to kick-start your career as an animal free researcher?

My summer research project presents a perfect opportunity for me to participate in neuroscience and work with neuron brain cells – something I have not had much opportunity to do.

I am also excited to acquire new techniques and to learn more about the CRISPR-Cas9 (a gene-editing tool that identifies specific sequences of DNA, cuts out ‘faults’ and replaces them with a ‘healthy’ sequence) work being undertaken. I believe that genetic engineering will be a powerful tool in animal free research.

This summer research project also gives me the opportunity to experience a professional laboratory environment, different from the teaching laboratories in my undergraduate studies, allowing me to build connections and practice collaborative skills as I work with other group members.

Why is research without the use of animals important to you?

The undergraduate modules I studied have provided me with an excellent background in neuroscience, however, most of the material taught on neurodevelopment was derived from mice, rat, insect or fish studies.

I became inspired when I attended a seminar series at the University of Exeter where the speakers at these seminars were undertaking pivotal human-relevant research.

I believe that human diseases should be studied using human models. In the future, I hope to design disease models that more accurately represent human biology and have greater capacity for generating human relevant results. My summer project is a great example of refining techniques to improve upon existing human models.

What are your future plans and career aspirations?

After graduating, I plan to undertake a Ph.D. studentship. I will be applying for neuroscience-focused PhD projects at the University of Exeter. My ultimate goal is to become an academic researcher in the field of neuroscience, and the Animal Free Research UK Summer Student Programme would be a major stepping-stone to kick-start my career.

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Many human relevant approaches have been introduced into the scientific world, but unfortunately, the use of animals in medical research is entrenched and institutionalised, with many researchers still viewing animal experiments as the gold standard. This is our time to make change happen. Our work is funded entirely by your generous support, so please make a donation today to help us free animals from laboratories for good.

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Page last modified on December 15, 2021 3:51 pm