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CWRU launches center to study overlooked factor in neurological diseases

Case Western Reserve University has launched a new research center, the Institute for Glial Sciences, to study glial cells, a relatively understudied factor in neurological diseases. The center, which was established in early November, will study the role these cells have in diseases such as Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, autism and Parkinson's, and develop therapeutics to treat them.

Glial cells comprise more than half of the cells in the nervous system and help neurons to function by providing them with support, insulation, protection and nutrients. However, according to Paul Tesar, director of the Institute for Glial Sciences, there are very few research centers worldwide that are dedicated to studying them. Given the growing understanding of the role these cells can play in the development of neurological diseases, he said now is the time to study this subject more intently.

"Glial sciences as a whole has been significantly understudied compared to the large amount of efforts that's been put on neurons," Tesar told Ideastream Public Media. "What we've begun to appreciate more recently, is that many of the common neurological diseases, things like Alzheimer's, things like Parkinson's, things like ALS, there is now appreciation, understanding that glial cells are dysfunctional, they're driving or exacerbating various components of that disease."

The institute, which is currently recruiting faculty and staff, has started its work and will focus on research and development of therapeutics, he said. Tesar said he anticipates a total of 50 people to work in the institute, including faculty, staff and trainees, within two years with further expansion afterward.

The institute will research the role glial cells play in the functioning of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, the peripheral nervous system, which includes the nerves that branch out from the brain and spinal cord, and the enteric nervous system, which facilitate the motor, sensory, absorptive and secretory functions of the gastrointestinal tract, Tesar said. Then the institute will apply that research to develop new therapeutics to treat neurological diseases that stem from glial cells.

This research "affords us an opportunity to really take a different approach to how we might develop therapeutics," he said. "I think we have the opportunity now ... to be intentional about bringing our understanding of glial cells toward new therapeutics that can specifically target these class of cells in our nervous systems."

Such a focus could be transformational, Tesar said.

"We are now able to access new understanding of the other half of our nervous systems and really begin to piece together in combination how we can develop therapies that target every distinct aspect of neurological dysfunction and collectively being able to promote normal function of nerve cells and to promote normal function of glial cells," he said. 

Doing so, "gives us the best opportunity to develop comprehensive treatment programs for the neurological disorders of our time."

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.