Jessica (Yutong) Li

Supervisor: Anastassia Voronova

Project: Engaging neural stem cells with hepatoma-derived growth factor (HDGF) for healthy brain development


Calgary, AB

Degree program:

Bachelor of Science

What do you get to work on throughout your studentship? 

I isolated neural stem cells and grew them in a dish with or without hepatoma-derived growth factor (HDGF) to see if the cell fate of neural stem cells changes with HDGF treatment. I also work with brain models that have been treated with HDGF and stained samples to identify different neural stem cell markers. I then take pictures using a microscope and analyze them on a computer. Finally, I am incorporating the data I collected into a manuscript, on which I will be listed as a first author.

What's been the best part of your experience so far?

I have been working on my project since my second year and have compiled a lot of data. Now that I’m in my final summer as an undergraduate, I am able to see the various questions that I had at the beginning being answered.

Did you find any interesting results from your summer studentship research project? 

Yes! Previously, I discovered that adding HDGF to neural stem cells grown in a dish increases their transformation into specialized cells called oligodendrocytes. Oligodendrocytes are important cells for brain health because they produce myelin, the main component of brain white matter. I further discovered that HDGF instructs neural stem cells to form oligodendrocytes through several cellular mechanisms. This summer I investigated whether the same results can be repeated in a living organism and was able to confirm that HDGF treatment in an animal model leads to an increase in oligodendrocyte formation from resident neural stem cells.

What impact do you hope this project makes once completed? How will this contribute to improving the health of children?

Because oligodendrocytes are the only myelinating cells of the brain, oligodendrocyte creation has far-reaching effects in neurodevelopment. This opens an exciting possibility for novel therapies aimed at increasing oligodendrocytes and myelination for improved brain health and function in neurodevelopmental disorders. I hope my results will inspire new approaches, where HDGF can be probed as a novel molecule to engage neural stem cells for healthy brain white matter development or regeneration.

What's one piece of advice you received from your supervisor/mentor that resonated with you?

To pursue your dreams no matter the obstacles present. This resonated with me because I understand how challenging research can be for undergraduate students due to balancing schedules and constantly learning new skills. But even through the challenges, I believe perseverance is the key to achieving your goals because encountering challenges and conquering them is a valuable learning opportunity, ultimately, leading to personal development.

Lay abstract:

The brain is a remarkable organ that has a limited capacity to regenerate diverse cells thanks to existing neural stem cells (NSCs). Postnatal and adult NSCs are capable of producing oligodendrocytes (OL) throughout life. Oligodendrocytes are specialized brain cells that produce myelin, an insulating material that ensures efficient neuronal propagation, a major component of brain white matter. Production of OL and myelin is important for learning and cognition. Children with neurodevelopmental and autism spectrum disorders display anomalies in myelin and oligodendrocytes. These anomalies in myelin structure can predict autism in children prior to the onset of symptoms. Finally, restoring myelin levels decreases behavioural deficits in an animal model of neurodevelopmental Williams syndrome—a syndrome characterized by cognitive deficits and developmental delays. Thus, oligodendrocyte formation represents an excellent pharmacological target for neurodevelopmental disorders.

In the embryonic brain, Dr. Voronova identified neurons that secrete factors instructing NSCs to form oligodendrocytes. One of these predicted factors is hepatoma-derived growth factor (HDGF). My results generated over previous summer and undergraduate research projects indicate that HDGF increases oligodendrocyte production from cultured NSCs. However, the ability of HDGF to engage resident postnatal NSCs for oligodendrocyte production in vivo is not known. To address this, I will assess whether HDGF treatment of NSC engagement leads to enhanced oligodendrocyte and myelin production.