Modeling the blood-brain barrier using stem cell sources

Fluids Barriers CNS. 2013 Jan 10;10(1):2. doi: 10.1186/2045-8118-10-2.


The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a selective endothelial interface that controls trafficking between the bloodstream and brain interstitial space. During development, the BBB arises as a result of complex multicellular interactions between immature endothelial cells and neural progenitors, neurons, radial glia, and pericytes. As the brain develops, astrocytes and pericytes further contribute to BBB induction and maintenance of the BBB phenotype. Because BBB development, maintenance, and disease states are difficult and time-consuming to study in vivo, researchers often utilize in vitro models for simplified analyses and higher throughput. The in vitro format also provides a platform for screening brain-penetrating therapeutics. However, BBB models derived from adult tissue, especially human sources, have been hampered by limited cell availability and model fidelity. Furthermore, BBB endothelium is very difficult if not impossible to isolate from embryonic animal or human brain, restricting capabilities to model BBB development in vitro. In an effort to address some of these shortcomings, advances in stem cell research have recently been leveraged for improving our understanding of BBB development and function. Stem cells, which are defined by their capacity to expand by self-renewal, can be coaxed to form various somatic cell types and could in principle be very attractive for BBB modeling applications. In this review, we will describe how neural progenitor cells (NPCs), the in vitro precursors to neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes, can be used to study BBB induction. Next, we will detail how these same NPCs can be differentiated to more mature populations of neurons and astrocytes and profile their use in co-culture modeling of the adult BBB. Finally, we will describe our recent efforts in differentiating human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) to endothelial cells with robust BBB characteristics and detail how these cells could ultimately be used to study BBB development and maintenance, to model neurological disease, and to screen neuropharmaceuticals.