Did you know that it is possible to look at MILLIONS of cells over many months at one time to track their health? Dr. Steven Finkbeiner at the Gladstone Institutes effectively changed the landscape of how researchers study cells in a dish by developing the Brain Bot, an automated microscopy system that does just that. It even has its own Twitter account. The ALS Association recognized the extreme value of this unique technology and funds Dr. Finkbeiner through the Neuro Collaborative, a large strategic initiative running in California.
The Brain Bot works by giving each cell its own code, like a social security number, so that it can actually track a single cell over time. The types of cells it can track are endless from motor neurons (the cells that die in ALS) to support cells of the nervous system called glia, which are both affected in ALS. Dr. Finkbeiner is especially interested in tracking motor neuron health over time in response to potential therapeutic compounds. With this technology, researchers can screen thousands of compounds at a time to track whether the compound makes the cells healthier or sicker.
Dr. Finkbeiner currently has multiple Brain Bots running in his laboratory working on numerous projects. Using the Brain Bot, his team has identified potential ALS compounds targeting autophagy, one mechanism the cell uses to get rid of unwanted by-products. They found that adding potential autophagy compounds to motor neurons derived from people living with ALS was protective. Partnerships with several companies are in negotiations to optimize these compounds for a future clinical trial.
Other partnerships have been spearheaded as a direct result of this groundbreaking technology, including a partnership of Dr. Finkbeiner’s laboratory with Biogen announced in January 2016. The company recently conducted their own genetic screens in ALS fly models to look for potential ALS targets. They found numerous hits that improved the health of their flies. Using the Brain Bot, Biogen aims to validate these potential targets in human induced pluripotent stem cell lines (iPSCs) derived from people living with ALS. This collaboration could ultimately help identify new drug targets for ALS.