Last month, I attended my first scientific research conference as a PhD student at the beautiful town of Keystone in Colorado. The Keystone Symposia on “Neuroinflammation: Concepts, Characteristics, Consequences” was a week-long meeting with around 300 participants focussed on the interaction between two complex systems – the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Immune System. Being a relatively new area of investigation, the conference brought together neuroscientists and immunologists who’re working on unraveling the mysteries of the brain and the human body. A traditional immunologist entering this field will have to grasp the intricacies of the brain with respect to microglia, astrocytes, neural circuits, neurodevelopment, the blood brain barrier (BBB), electrophysiology, behavior, degeneration, and more. Similarly, a traditional neuroscientist new to the field is expected to be familiar with all the details of the immune system from the heterogeneous immune cell types to different markers, the complement system, cytokines and chemokines, and be able to define aging in the context of immune regulation. As for me, being new to both the disciplines, this was an exciting opportunity to discover bold ideas as well as revisit my research objectives from a fresh perspective. Not to forget how wonderful Keystone itself was and made me realize how much I love the mountains!
Without going into much of the details, some highlights of the conference are summarized below.
Microglia – the good, the bad, and the ugly
As expected, microglia were a hot topic through the meeting. Being the only resident immune cells in the CNS, microglia make up around 10% of the total cells in the brain. Activated microglia exhibit self-renewal and proliferative capacity along with phagocytic capability by engulfing toxic misfoled proteins (such as the aggregated amyloid beta peptides in Alzheimer’s disease and the alpha syneucleins in Parkinson’s disease). These “good” microglia are therefore essential for the maintenance of brain homeostasis. But what happens when these macrophages go haywire and start chewing up healthy neural synapses and start making more pro-inflammatory cytokines than necessary? How do these “bad” microglia contribute to neuroinflammation and accelerate the neurodegenerative phenomena? More importantly, the M1/M2 phenotypic characterization of microglia that I have previously written about is now considered to be an obsolete concept. Currently, we know that these cells are much more complex than to exhibit two polarized states. Microglia are heterogeneous in that their microenvironment dictates their characterization and therefore can exhibit multiple phenotypes.
Secretome – Looking beyond the transcriptome
A common method to predict the cellular phenotype or function is to study the transcriptome profile of a group of cells (or a single cell) under different activation states. In his talk, Christopher Glass highlighted the differences between the transcriptomes of human microglia and mouse microglia, and stressed on the importance of working with microenvironment-dependent microglial gene expression data. His work also showed the major differences in the up-regulated vs down-regulated genes in human vs mouse genomes highlighting the drawbacks of utilizing mouse models for characterizing human microglial cell behavior. Hugh Perry, in his talk laid out the “secretome” profile (the cytokines and chemokines) of microglial cells in the brain. Dr. Perry described the journey of his lab’s work towards targeted immunomodulation in chronic neurodegeneration by using this data.
The BBB – Pushing the boundaries of neuroinflammation
Among many topics of discussion, an interesting area was the role of the BBB in influencing immune cell proliferation into the CNS under stress and injury. (Side note: Other interesting areas of discussion were – cool new tools being developed for drug discovery, the use of various animal models in studying neuroinflammation such as transgenic and wild type zebra fish, drosophila, induced pluripotent stem cells, humanized mouse models, and rats). Studying the BBB in the context of inflammation can lead to some interesting questions such as – “What are the differences in the markers expressed and cytokines produced by the infiltrating macrophages versus the resident microglial cells?“, “How can the resident microglia be characterized in the context of microglial functions such as phagocytosis?“, “How do the pericytes and the oligodendrocytes contribute to inflammation in different disease models?”
It’s all about the microglial cross-talk with glia (astrocytes) and neurons
Recently, Ben Barres’ group showed that activated microglial cells induce the formation of toxic A1 astrocytes by releasing TNF-a, IL-1a, and C1q that causing neurotoxicity and the eventual degradation of neurons. This study was significant because it showed that the neural death occurs through astrocytes and not directly from microglia. The importance of the role of astrocytes in mediating neuroinflammation has increased since then. Of course, the entire process in itself is a cross-talk between various cells within a particular microenvironment. Hence, when we discovery and design drugs to target microglia, we should also consider the effects of the compounds on glia and neurons in vitro, before moving to the in vivo studies.
Is anti-inflammation and not pro-inflammation the culprit in Alzheimer’s disease?
Perhaps one of the most provocative talks of the conference was by David Hansen from Genentech who illuminated the role of Triggering Receptor Expressed On Myeloid Cells 2 (Trem2) and debunked the myth of pro-inflammatory cytokines in Alzheimer’s pathology (i.e., lot of inflammation causes Alzheimer’s). Dr. Hansen highlighted key genes that are evident in anti-inflammation and immune suppression to be up regulated in his studies pointing towards an alternative activation pathway for neuroinflammation. This is an example where looking into the secretome along with the transcriptome becomes crucial in characterizing the cells and their subtypes in the progression of the disease.
My poster – Combination drug repurposing for the synergistic effect of enhancing microglial phagocytosis and reducing neurotoxicity in Alzheimer’s disease
I presented a poster on one of my ongoing projects on combination drug repurposing for Alzheimer’s disease. I am grateful for everyone who stopped by and for all the valuable feedback and comments that I received on my work. Many questions were aimed towards the computation wing of the project (that I don’t directly work on). Briefly, these compounds are identified by utilizing the interactome-based drug discovery pipeline (called CANDO) that maps the signatures derived from the interaction between all the proteins in the proteome and all the human approved compounds. The overlapping mechanisms or pathways between Alzheimer disease with other diseases such as diabetes, heart failure, inflammation, among others can be utilized to determine drug behavior and therefore utilized for predicting novel targets.
And finally – Colorado!
I cannot leave out Colorado in this conversation about Keystone Symposia. I have been living on the plain lands among endless corn fields for almost four years now. Being around snow-capped mountains was an absolute treat to the eye (and to the soul). During the afternoon break sessions, we drove to various locations such as the Loveland pass which is around 11,990 feet above sea level in the Rocky mountains and the riven run area. Intense winds and long stretches of snow welcomed us after a beautiful drive up the Rocky’s. I’ll let the photos do rest of the talking. Overall, attending the Keystone conference at this time in my research career was a great decision. I now have a better understanding of the field and my own project. I should really thank my advisor since it was he who pushed this idea and gave me valuable insight and advice throughout.