Stay on Target: Scientists Create Chemical ‘Homing Devices’ that Guide Stem Cells to Final Destination

When injecting stem cells into a patient, how do the cells know where to go? How do they know to travel to a specific damage site, without getting distracted along the way?

Scientists are now discovering that, in some cases they do but in many cases, they don’t. So engineers have found a way to give stem cells a little help.

As reported in today’s Cell Reports, engineers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, along with scientists at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, have identified a suite of chemical compounds that can help the stem cells find their way.

Researchers identified a small molecule that can be used to program stem cells (blue and green) to home in on sites of damage. [Credit: Oren Levy, Brigham and Women's Hospital]

Researchers identified a small molecule that can be used to program stem cells (blue and green) to home in on sites of damage. [Credit: Oren Levy, Brigham and Women’s Hospital]

“There are all kinds of techniques and tools that can be used to manipulate cells outside the body and get them into almost anything we want, but once we transplant cells we lose complete control over them,” said Jeff Karp, the paper’s co-senior author, in a news release, highlighting just how difficult it is to make sure the stem cells reach their destination.

So, Karp and his team—in collaboration with Sanofi—began to screen thousands of chemical compounds, known as small molecules, that they could physically attach to the stem cells prior to injection and that could guide the cells to the appropriate site of damage. Not unlike a molecular ‘GPS.’

Starting with more than 9,000 compounds, the Sanofi team narrowed down the candidates to just six. They then used a microfluidic device—a microscope slide with tiny glass channels designed to mimic human blood vessels. Stem cells pretreated with the compound Ro-31-8425 (one of the most promising of the six) stuck to the sides. An indication, says the team, Ro-31-8425 might help stem cells home in on their target.

But how would these pre-treated cells fare in animal models? To find out, Karp enlisted the help of Charles Lin, an expert in optical imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital. First, the team injected the pre-treated cells into mouse models each containing an inflamed ear. Then, using Lin’s optical imaging techniques, they tracked the cells’ journey. Much to their excitement, the cells went immediately to the site of inflammation—and then they began to repair the damage.

According to Oren Levy, the study’s co-first author, these results are especially encouraging because they point to how doctors may someday soon deliver much-needed stem cell therapies to patients:

“There’s a great need to develop strategies that improve the clinical impact of cell-based therapies. If you can create an engineering strategy that is safe, cost effective and simple to apply, that’s exactly what we need to achieve the promise of cell-based therapy.”

Shape-Shifting Pancreas Cells Set Stage for Development of Deadly Cancer

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the likely outcome is—in a word—bleak. At a time when cancers can be treated so successfully as to give the patient a good quality of life, pancreatic cancer remains one of the last holdouts. It is the fourth most deadly form of cancer in the United States. One in four patients won’t last a year.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer.

One of the main hurdles for successfully treating this type of cancer is how quickly it spreads. Oftentimes, pancreatic cancer is not diagnosed until having spread to such an extent that even the most aggressive treatments can only delay the inevitable.

As a result, the goal of researchers has been to peer back in time to the origins of pancreatic cancer—in the hopes that they can find a way to halt the disease before it begins to wreak irreversible damage on the body. And now, an international team of researchers believes they have identified a gene that could be the key culprit.

Reporting in the latest issue of Nature Communications, a joint team of scientists from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Oslo, Norway, have pinpointed a gene—called PKD1—that causes normal, healthy pancreatic cells to literally morph into a new, duct-like cell structure. And it is this change in shape that can sometimes lead to pancreatic cancer.

“As soon as pancreatic cancer develops, it begins to spread, and PKD1 is key to both processes,” said Peter Storz, one of the study’s lead authors, in a news release. “Given this finding, we are busy developing a PKD1 inhibitor that we can test further.”

The purpose of the inhibitor, says Storz, is to neutralize PKD1—stopping the cancer in its tracks.

Using pancreatic cells derived from mouse models, the research team tested the effects of PKD1 by turning it on and off at specific intervals, similar to flipping a light switch. In the presence of PKD1, the team observed the pancreas cells rapidly changing shape into the more dangerous, duct-like cells. And when they shut off PKD1, the percentage of cells that underwent shape shifting dropped.

The team’s success at developing this model cannot be understated. As Storz explained:

“This model tells us that PKD1 is essential for the initial transformation…to duct-like cells, which can then become cancerous. If we can stop that transformation from happening—or perhaps reverse the process once it occurs—we may be able to block or treat cancer development and its spread.”

Currently, the teams are developing potential PDK1 inhibitors for further testing—and bring some hope that the prognosis for pancreatic cancer may not always be so dire.

Said Storz: “While these are early days, understanding one of the key drivers in this aggressive cancer is a major step in the right direction.”

Combination Cancer Therapy Gives Cells a Knockout Punch

For some forms of cancer, there really is no way to truly eradicate it. Even the most advanced chemotherapy treatments leave behind some straggler cells that can fuel a relapse.

By hitting breast cancer cells with a targeted therapeutic immediately after chemotherapy, researchers were able to target cancer cells during a transitional stage when they were most vulnerable. [Credit: Aaron Goldman]

By hitting breast cancer cells with a targeted therapeutic immediately after chemotherapy, researchers were able to target cancer cells during a transitional stage when they were most vulnerable.
[Credit: Aaron Goldman]

But now, scientists have devised a unique strategy, something they are calling a ‘one-two punch’ that can more effectively wipe out dangerous tumors, and lower the risk of them ever returning for a round two.

Reporting in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications, bioengineers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston describe how treating breast cancer cells with a targeted drug immediately after chemotherapy was effective at killing the cancer cells and preventing a recurrence. According to lead scientist Shiladitya Sengupta, these findings were wholly unexpected:

“We were studying the fundamentals of how [drug] resistance develops and looking to understand what drives [cancer] relapse. What we found is a new paradigm for thinking about chemotherapy.”

In recent years, many scientists have suggested cancer stem cells are one of the biggest hurdles to curing cancer. Cancer stem cells are proposed to be a subpopulation of cancer cells that are resistant to chemotherapy. As a result, they can propagate the cancer after treatment, leading to a relapse.

In this work, Sengupta and his colleagues treated breast cancer cells with chemotherapy. And here is where things started getting interesting.

After chemotherapy, the breast cancer cells began to morph into cells that bore a close resemblance to cancer stem cells. For a brief period of time after treatment, these cells were neither fully cancer cells, nor fully stem cells. They were in transition.

The team then realized that because these cells were in transition, they may be more vulnerable to attack. Testing this hypothesis in mouse models of breast cancer, the team first zapped the tumors with chemotherapy. And, once the cells began to morph, they then blasted them with a different type of drug. The tumors never grew back, and the mice survived.

Interestingly, the team did not have similar success when they altered the timing of when they administered the therapy. Treating the mice with both types of drugs simultaneously didn’t have the same effect. Neither did increasing the time between treatments. In order to successfully treat the tumor they had a very slim window of opportunity.

“By treating with chemotherapy, we’re driving cells through a transition state and creating vulnerabilities,” said Aaron Goldman, the study’s first author. “This opens up the door: we can then try out different combinations and regimens to find the most effective way to kill the cells and inhibit tumor growth.”

In order to test these combinations, the researchers developed an ‘explant,’ a mini-tumor derived from a patient’s biopsy that can be grown in an environment that closely mimics its natural surroundings. The ultimate goal, says Goldman, is to map the precise order and timing of this treatment regimen in order to move toward clinical trials:

“Our goal is to build a regimen that will be [effective] for clinical trials. Once we’ve understood specific timing, sequence of drug delivery and dosage better, it will be easier to translate these findings clinically.”

All Things Being (Un)Equal: Scientists Discover Gene that Breaks Traditional Laws of Inheritance

One of the most fundamental laws of biology is about to be turned on its head, according to new research from scientists at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine.

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As reported in the journal PLOS Genetics, UNC researchers identified a gene that does not obey traditional laws that determine how genes get passed down from parents to offspring. In experiments on laboratory mice, they found a gene called R2d2 causes female mice to pass on more genetic information than the males did—an observation that appears to contradict principles of genetic inheritance set forth more than a century ago.

As you may (or may not) remember from freshmen biology class, the laws of inheritance were laid down by the 19th century monk Gregor Mendel. Through meticulous observations of his garden’s pea plants, he found that each parent contributes their genetic information equally to their offspring.

But 150 years of scientific discovery later, scientists have discovered that this isn’t always the case.

Instead, in some cases one of the parents will contribute a greater percentage of genetic information than the other, a process called meiotic drive. Scientists had seen evidence of this process occurring in mammals for quite some time, but hadn’t narrowed down the driver of the process to a particular gene. According to UNC researchers, R2d2 is that gene. Senior author Fernando Pardo-Manuel de Villena explains:

“R2d2 is a good example of a poorly understood phenomenon known as female meiotic drive—when an egg is produced and a ‘selfish gene’ is segregated to the egg more than half the time.”

Pardo-Manuel de Villena notes that one example of this process occurs during trisomies—when three chromosomes (two from one parent and one from the other) are passed down to the embryo. The most common trisomy, trisomy 21, is more commonly known as Down Syndrome.

With these findings, Pardo-Manuel de Villena and the team are hoping to gain important insights into the underlying cause of trisomies, as well as the underlying causes for miscarriage—which are often not known.

“Understanding how meiotic drive works may shed light on the … abnormalities underlying these disorders,” said Pardo-Manuel de Villena.

This research was performed in large part by first author John Didion, who first discovered R2d2 when breeding two different types of mice for genetic analysis. Using whole-genome sequencing of thousands of laboratory mice, Didion and his colleagues saw that genes were passed down equally from each mouse’s parents. But a small section, smack dab in the middle of chromosome 2, was different.

Further analysis revealed that this section of chromosome 2 had a disproportionately larger number of genes from the mouse’s mother, compared to its father—showing a clear example of female meiotic drive. And at the heart of it all, Didion discovered, was the R2d2 gene.

The UNC team are already busy diving deeper into the relationship between R2d2 and meiotic drive with a focus on understanding, and one day perhaps correcting, genetic abnormalities in the developing embryo.

MIT Scientists Recreate Malaria in a Dish to Test Promising Drug Candidates

At the beginning, it feels like the flu: aches, pains and vomiting. But then you begin to experience severe cold and shivering, followed by fever and sweating—a cycle, known as tertian fever, that repeats itself every two days. And that’s when you know: you’ve contracted malaria.

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and spread to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and spread to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes

But you wouldn’t be alone. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 200 million people, mostly in Africa, contracted the disease in 2013. Of those, nearly half a million—mainly children—died. There is no cure for malaria, and the parasites that cause the disease are quickly developing resistance to treatments. This is a global public health crisis, and experts agree that in order to halt its spread, they must begin thinking outside the box.

Enter Sangeeta Bhatia, renowned biomedical engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—who, along with her team, has devised a quick and easy way to test out life-saving drug candidates that could give doctors and aid workers on the front lines fresh ammunition.

One of the key hurdles facing scientists has been the nature of the disease’s progression itself. Caused by parasites transmitted via infected mosquitos, the disease first takes hold in the liver. It is only after a few weeks that it enters the blood stream, causing symptoms. By then, the disease is so entrenched within the patient that complete eradication is extremely difficult. Even if the patient recovers, he or she will likely suffer relapses weeks, months or even years later.

The trick, therefore, is to catch the disease before it enters the blood stream. To that effect, several promising drugs have been put forth, and scientists are eager to test them out on liver tissue infected with malaria. Except that they can’t: liver tissue donors are few and far between, and lack the genetic diversity needed for large-scale testing.

Liver-stage malarial infection in iPSC-derived liver cells, eight days after infection. [Credit Ng et al.]

Liver-stage malarial infection in iPSC-derived liver cells, eight days after infection. [Credit Ng et al.]

So Bhatia and her team developed a new solution: they’d make the cells themselves. Reporting in today’s issue of Stem Cell Reports, the team describes how they transformed human skin cells into liver cells, by way of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) technology. Then, by infecting these cells with the malaria parasite, they could test a variety of drug candidates to see which worked best. As Bhatia explained:

“Our platform can be used for testing candidate drugs that act against the parasite in the early liver stages, before it causes disease in the blood and spreads back to the mosquito vector. This is especially important given the increasing occurrence of drug-resistant strains of malaria in the field.”

Bhatia has long been known for finding innovative solutions to longstanding issues in science and medicine. Just last year, she was awarded the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize in part for her invention of a paper-based urine test for prostate cancer.

In this study, the researchers bombarded malaria-infected liver cells with two drugs, called atovaguone and primaquine, each developed to treat the disease specifically at the liver stage.

The results, though preliminary, are promising: the cells responded well to both drugs, underscoring the value of this approach to testing drugs—an approach that many call “disease in a dish.”

The potential utility of “disease in a dish” studies cannot be understated, as it gives researchers the ability to screen drugs on cells from individuals of varying genetic backgrounds, and discover which drug, or drugs, works best for each group.

Shengyong Ng, a postdoctoral researcher in Bhatia’s lab, spoke of what this study could mean for disease research:

“The use of iPSC-derived liver cells to model liver-stage malaria in a dish opens the door to study the influence of host genetics on antimalarial drug efficacy, and lays the foundation for their use in antimalarial drug discovery.”

Find out more about how scientists use stem cells to model disease in a dish in our video series, Stem Cells In Your Face.

‘STARS’ Help Scientists Control Genetic On/Off Switch

All life on Earth relies, ultimately, on the delicate coordination of switches. During development, these switches turn genes on—or keep them off—at precise intervals, controlling the complex processes that guide the growth of the embryo, cell by cell, as it matures from a collection of stem cells into a living, breathing organism.

Scientists have found a new way to control genetic switches.

Scientists have found a new way to control genetic switches.

If you control the switch, you could theoretically control some of life’s most fundamental processes.

Which is precisely what scientists at Cornell University are attempting to do.

Reporting in today’s issue of Nature Chemical Biology, synthetic biologists have developed a new method of directing these switches—a feat that could revolutionize the field of genetic engineering.

At the heart of the team’s discovery is a tiny molecule called RNA. A more simplified version of its cousin, DNA, RNA normally serves as a liaison—translating the genetic information housed in DNA into the proteins that together make up each and every cell in the body.

In nature, RNA does not have the ability to ‘turn on’ a gene at will. So the Cornell team, led by Julius Lucks, made a new kind of RNA that did.

They engineered a new type of RNA that they are calling Small Transcription Activating RNAs, or STARS, that can serve as a kind of artificial switch. In laboratory experiments, Lucks and his team showed that they could control how and when a gene was switched on by physically placing the STARS system in front of it. As Lucks explained in a news release:

“RNA is like a molecular puzzle, a crazy Rubik’s cube that has to be unlocked in order to do different things. We’ve figured out how to design another RNA that unlocks part of that puzzle. The STAR is the key to that lock.”

RNA is an attractive molecule to manipulate because it is so simple, says Lucks, much simpler than proteins. Many efforts aimed at protein manipulation have failed, due to the sheer complexity of these molecules. But by downshifting into the simpler, more manageable RNA molecules, Lucks argues that greater strides can be made in the field of synthetic biology and genetic engineering.

“This is going to open up a whole set of possibilities for us, because RNA molecules make decisions and compute information really well, and they detect things really well,” said Lucks.

In the future, Lucks envisions a system based solely on RNA that has the capability to manipulate genetic switches to better understand fundamental processes that guide the healthy development of a cell—and provide clues to what happens when those processes go awry.

Extending the Lease: Stanford Scientists Turn Back Clock on Aging Cells

In the end, all living things—even the cells in our bodies—must die. But what if we could delay the inevitable, even just for a bit? What new scientific advances could come as a result?

Stanford scientists have found a way to temporarily extend the life of an aging cell.

Stanford scientists have found a way to temporarily extend the life of an aging cell.

In research published this week in the FASEB Journal, scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have devised a new method that gives aging DNA a molecular facelift.

The procedure, developed by Stanford Stem Cell Scientist Helen Blau and her team at the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology, physically lengthens the telomeres—the caps on the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell from the effects of aging.

When born, all cells contain chromosomes capped with telomeres. But during each round of cell division, those telomeres shrink. Eventually, the telomeres shorten to such an extent that the chromosomes can no longer replicate at the rate they once could. For the cell, this is the beginning of the end.

The link between telomeres and cellular aging has been an intense focus in recent years, including the subject of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Extending the lifespan of cells by preventing—or reversing— the shortening of telomeres can not only boost cell division during laboratory studies, but can also lead to new therapeutic strategies to treat age-related diseases.

“Now we have found a way to lengthen human telomeres… turning back the internal clock in these cells by the equivalent of many years of human life,” explained Blau in a press release. “This greatly increases the number of cells available for studies such as drug testing or disease modeling.”

The method Blau and her team describe involves the use of a modified bit of RNA that boosts the production of the protein telomerase. Telomerase is normally present in high levels in stem cells, but drops off once the cells mature. Blau’s modified RNA gives the aging cells a shot of telomerase, after which they begin behaving like cells half their age. But only for about 48 hours, after which they begin to degrade again.

The temporary nature of this change, say the researchers, offers significant advantages. On the biological level, it means that the treated cells won’t begin dividing out of control indefinitely, minimizing the risk of tumor formation. The study’s first author John Ramunas offers up some additional pluses to their method:

“Existing methods of extending telomeres act slowly, whereas our method acts over just a few days to reverse telomere shortening that occurs over more than a decade of normal aging. This suggests that a treatment using our method could be brief and infrequent.”

Indeed, the genetic disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy is in part characterized by abnormally short telomeres. Blau reasons that their discovery could lead to better treatments for this disease. Their immediate future steps involve testing their method in a variety of cell types. Said Blau:

“We’re working to understand more about the differences among cell types, and how we can overcome those differences to allow this approach to be more universally successful.”

Hear more about stem cells and muscular dystrophy in our recent Spotlight on Disease featuring Helen Blau:

Scientists Develop Colorful Cell-Imaging Technique

Proteins are the helmsmen of the cell. They drive the essential processes that keep cells alive, keep them healthy and keep them functioning. And in recent years scientists have discovered that proteins rarely act alone.

In fact, so-called ‘protein-protein interactions’ are now known to drive the vast majority of cellular functions. But figuring out exactly how they do so has proven difficult.

Luckily, scientists now have a way to see these interactions—in a dazzling array of Technicolor.

As described in today’s issue of Nature Methods, Robert Campbell and his team at the University of Alberta have announced a new way to visualize protein-protein interactions, by converting these interactions into changes in color. This technique could be employed across a variety of disciplines, helping scientists understand normal processes in the cell—and observe the molecular changes that occur when those processes go awry.

“With this development,” explained Campbell in a news release, “we can immediately image activity happening at the cellular level, offering an alternative to existing methods for detecting and imaging of protein-protein interactions in live cells.”

Called FPX, Campbell’s method links a change in a protein-protein interaction to a color. As seen in the video below, every time the interaction changes, a color change—from red to green, and back to red again—is visible.

The FPX method is based on previously published work by Campbell and others, which found that green and red fluorescent proteins could both be inserted into a single cell so that the protein could be red or green—but not both at the same time. So, the team was able to construct biosensors that changed color in response to changes in protein-protein interactions.

In this study, the researchers have essentially given scientists a powerful tool to help them understand how even the smallest molecular changes can lead to significant changes in the health of the cell.

According to Campbell:

“It will be immediately relevant to many areas of fundamental cell biology research and practical applications such as drug discovery. Ultimately, it will help researchers achieve breakthroughs in a wide variety of areas in the life sciences, such as neuroscience, diabetes and cancer.”

Scientists Send Rodents to Space; Test New Therapy to Prevent Bone Loss

In just a few months, 40 very special rodents will embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

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Today UCLA scientists are announcing the start of a project that will test a new therapy that has the potential to slow, halt or even reverse bone loss due to disease or injury.

With grant funding from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a team of stem cell scientists led by UCLA professor of orthopedic surgery Chia Soo will send 40 rodents to the International Space Station (ISS). Living under microgravity conditions for two months, these rodents will begin to undergo bone loss—thus closely mimicking the conditions of bone loss, known as osteoporosis, seen in humans back on Earth.

At that point, the rodents will be injected with a molecule called NELL-1. Discovered by Soo’s UCLA colleague Kang Ting, this molecule has been shown in early tests to spur bone growth. In this new set of experiments on the ISS, the researchers hope to test the ability of NELL-1 to spur bone growth in the rodents.

The team is optimistic that NELL-1 could really be key to transforming how doctors treat bone loss. Said Ting in a news release:

“NELL-1 holds tremendous hope, not only for preventing bone loss but one day even restoring healthy bone. For patients who are bed-bound and suffering from bone loss, it could be life-changing.”

“Besides testing the limits of NELL-1’s robust bone-producing efforts, this mission will provide new insights about bone biology and could uncover important clues for curing diseases such as osteoporosis,” added Ben Wu, a UCLA bioengineer responsible for initially modifying NELL-1 to make it useful for treating bone loss.

The UCLA team will oversee ground operations while the experiments will be performed by NASA scientists on the ISS and coordinated by CASIS.

These experiments are important not only for developing new therapies to treat gradual bone loss, such as osteoporosis, which normally affects the elderly, but also those who have bone loss due to trauma or injury—including bone loss due to extended microgravity conditions, a persistent problem for astronauts living on the ISS. Said Soo:

“This research has enormous translational application for astronauts in space flight and for patients on Earth who have osteoporosis or other bone-loss problems from disease, illness or trauma.”