Tissue & Genetics Studies

Stem Cell Research in SIDS: A Novel Approach to the Brainstem Serotonin Hypothesis

The American SIDS Institute has awarded a grant to Dr. Benjamin Okaty, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University who is working with Dr. Hannah Kinney and others to research the relationship between brainstem serotonin and sudden infant death.

Serotonin (5-HT) is an important neurotransmitter that affects respiratory control and arousal. Kinney and others have shown that these neurotransmitters may play an important role in SIDS.

The purpose of Dr. Okaty’s study, using stem cell research, is to understand neural circuits that control life-sustaining control responses and to determine a potential neurobiological basis for SIDS. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells which can differentiate into specialized cells. One source of stem cells is umbilical cord blood obtained at birth, but fully developed adult cells can also be artificially grown and transformed into stem cells.

Stem cells are multi-potential cells and they have recently been successfully transformed into brain (neuronal) cells and have been instrumental in revealing disease-associated abnormalities in other human diseases like Long QT Syndrome and schizophrenia. The opportunity for this study comes from umbilical cord stem cells donated by parents of a SIDS infant and two living siblings.

Dr. Okaty proposes to define cellular, genetic and physiological properties of serotonin (5-HT) neurons. Currently, he is directing mature mouse cells to become 5-HT neurons that are sensitive to carbon dioxide (CO2) to study their fundamental properties and to perfect the technique in this mouse model. In his research, he will transform umbilical stem cells of the SIDS infant and the siblings into 5-HT neurons in the laboratory. He will then assess how molecular, cellular, neurophysiological properties of these neuronal cells in the SIDS infant differ from the sibling controls.

Long-term, the investigators hope to develop models of neuronal cell-types thought to be involved in SIDS that can be readily derived from stem cells in umbilical cord blood obtained at delivery. This novel approach reflects the emerging and exciting potential for translating basic genetic research into a clinically-relevant diagnostic tool for screening newborns for SIDS-related neuronal deficits. The ultimate goal of this cutting-edge research is to develop a platform for testing therapeutic drugs that could correct or reverse the neuronal deficits resulting in sudden infant death.