Protein Revs Up Bone Stem Cells; Points Toward Future Osteoporosis Drug

Take a moment to feel your arm and wrist bones. They’re a lot more like solid rock than the soft stretchy skin that covers them. But bone is very much a living tissue continually being broken down and built back up in a process called bone remodeling. In people with osteoporosis, this balance tips toward bone breakdown leading to more porous, fragile bones with increased risk of fractures. An estimated ten million people in the U.S. have osteoporosis accounting for 1.5 million fractures annually at a cost of $17 billion in medical care, not to mention the emotional toll of these often debilitating and even life threatening injuries.

Fluorescent imaging mouse spines. Treatment with NELL-1 (right) shows greater bone formation compared to untreated mice (left). Credit: Broad Stem Cell Research Center

Fluorescent imaging of mouse spines. Treatment with NELL-1 (right) shows greater bone formation compared to untreated mice (left). Credit: Broad Stem Cell Research Center

This week a CIRM-funded research team at UCLA reported in Nature Communications that injection of a human protein called NELL-1 into the blood of mice with osteoporosis-like symptoms tipped the balance back toward bone formation. In a large animal study, delivering NELL-1 directly into the spine also led to increased bone volume. In a university press release, co-senior author Kang Ting spoke of his hopes that these results open up a new therapeutic avenue for treating osteoporosis and other ailments:

“Our end goal is really to harness the bone forming properties of NELL-1 to better treat patients with diverse causes of bone loss, from trauma in military personnel to osteoporosis from age, disease or very weak gravity, which causes bone loss in astronauts.”

In petri dish experiments leading up to these animal results, the research team showed that NELL-1 acts by increasing the specialization of mesenchymal stem cells – a type of adult stem cell found in the bone marrow and fat – into osteoblasts, the cells responsible for building new bone. At the same time, NELL-1 reduced the generation of osteoclasts, the cells responsible for the breakdown, or resorption, of bone. This dual action of NELL-1 explains how it improved the osteoporosis-like symptoms in the animals. Check out this fascinating animation for a visual description of osteoblasts and osteoclasts:

Many of the other molecules that promote bone growth aren’t as efficient as NELL-1: while they increase osteoblast numbers they also increase osteoclasts to some extent. For example, Fosamax is a drug prescribed to women with osteoporosis to help build stronger bones but long-term use has been associated with even more brittle bones and fractures. So this finding with NELL-1 sets it apart and hints at fewer side effects as a therapeutic. Still, it’s known to play a role in brain, cartilage, and blood vessel development so careful studies of non-bone effects are needed as the team pursues a road to the clinic.

For more information about CIRM-funded projects related to osteoporosis, visit our online fact sheet.

Stem Cell Scientists Reconstruct Disease in a Dish; Gain Insight into Deadly Form of Bone Cancer

The life of someone with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS) is not a pleasant one. A rare genetic disorder that usually runs in families, this syndrome is characterized by heightened risk of developing cancer—multiple types of cancer—at a very young age.

People with LFS, as the syndrome is often called, are especially susceptible to osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that most often affects children. Despite numerous research advances, survival rates for this type of cancer have not improved in over 40 years.

shutterstock_142552177 But according to new research from Mount Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine, the prognosis for these patients may not be so dire in a few years.

Reporting today in the journal Cell, researchers describe how they used a revolutionary type of stem cell technology to recreate LFS in a dish and, in so doing, have uncovered the series of molecular triggers that cause people with LFS to have such high incidence of osteosarcoma.

The scientists, led by senior author Ihor Lemischka, utilized induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, to model LFS—and osteosarcoma—at the cellular level.

Discovered in 2006 by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, iPSC technology allows scientists to reprogram adult skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells, which can then be turned into virtually any cell in the body. In the case of a genetic disorder, such as LFS, scientists can transform skin cells from someone with the disorder into bone cells and grow them in the lab. These cells will then have the same genetic makeup as that of the original patient, thus creating a ‘disease in a dish.’ We have written often about these models being used for various diseases, particularly neurological ones, but not cancer.

“Our study is among the first to use induced pluripotent stem cells as the foundation of a model for cancer,” said lead author and Mount Sinai postdoctoral fellow Dung-Fang Lee in today’s press release.

The team’s research centered on the protein p53. P53 normally acts as a tumor suppressor, keeping cell divisions in check so as not to divide out of control and morph into early-stage tumors. Previous research had revealed that 70% of people with LFS have a specific mutation in the gene that encodes p53. Using this knowledge and with the help of the iPSC technology, the team shed much-needed light on a molecular link between LFS and bone cancer. According to Lee:

“This model, when combined with a rare genetic disease, revealed for the first time how a protein known to prevent tumor growth in most cases, p53, may instead drive bone cancer when genetic changes cause too much of it to be made in the wrong place.”

Specifically, the team discovered that the ultimate culprit of LFS bone cancer is an overactive p53 gene. Too much p53, it turns out, reduces the amount of another gene, called H19. This then leads to a decrease in the protein decorin. Decorin normally acts to help stem cells mature into healthy, bone-making cells, known as osteoblasts. Without it, the stem cells can’t mature. They instead divide over and over again, out of control, and ultimately cause the growth of dangerous tumors.

But those out of control cells can become a target for therapy, say researchers. In fact, the team found that artificially boosting H19 levels could have a positive effect.

“Our experiments showed that restoring H19 expression hindered by too much p53 restored “protective differentiation” of osteoblasts to counter events of tumor growth early on in bone cancer,” said Lemischka.

And, because mutations in p53 have been linked to other forms of bone cancer, the team is optimistic that these preliminary results will be able to guide treatment for bone cancer patients—whether they have LFS or not. Added Lemischka:

“The work has implications for the future treatment or prevention of LFS-associated osteosarcoma, and possibly for all forms of bone cancer driven by p53 mutations, with H19 and p53 established now as potential targets for future drugs.”

Learn more about how scientists are using stem cell technology to model disease in a dish in our special video series: Stem Cells In Your Face:

Stem cell stories that caught our eye; creating bone, turning data into sound, cord blood and path of a stem cell star

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

A better ratio of bone to fat
. Most of us at any age would prefer a little less fat and older folks, particularly ones plagued by the bone loss of osteoporosis, could use a bit more bone. Since both types of tissues come from mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) a team at the University of Miami decided to look for chemical triggers that tells those stem cells whether to become fat or bone.

They found an enzyme that seems to do just that. In mice that were born with a mutation in the gene for that enzyme they saw increased bone growth, less fat production and a leaner body mass. HealthCanal picked up the university’s press release that quoted the leader of the team Joshua Hare:

“The production of bone could have a profound effect on the quality of life for the aging population.”

He goes on to note that there are many hurdles to cross before this becomes a therapeutic reality, but the current work points to lots of potential.

Path to becoming a star stem cell scientist. D, the city magazine for Dallas, published a lengthy—nearly 4,000-word—feature on Sean Morrison, one of the undisputed leaders of our field. While it starts out talking about his latest role of creating a multi-pronged center for innovation at

Sean Morrison

Sean Morrison

Children’s Medical Center Dallas and UT Southwestern, it spends most of its words on how he got there.

It’s fun reading how someone gets into a field as new as stem cell science and what keeps them in the field. Initially, for him it seems to originate from an immense curiosity about what was not known about the powerful little stem cells.

“Fifteen years ago, there was nothing known at the molecular level about how stem cells replicate. And I really felt it was a fundamental question in biology to understand. It was a question that was central to a lot of important issues, because the ability of stem cells to self-renew is critical to form your tissues throughout development, to maintain your tissues throughout adulthood.”

There is also a good retelling of Morrison’s role in the protracted and hard-fought battle to make embryonic stem cell research legal during his years in Michigan. He started working on the campaign to overturn the ban in 2006 and in 2008 the voters agreed. The article makes a compelling case for something I have advocated for years: scientists need to practice speaking for the public and get out and do it.

Turning stem cell data into sound. Interpreting scientific data through sound, sonification, is a bit trendy now. But the concept is quite old. Think of the Geiger counter and the speed of the click changing based on the level of radiation.

Researchers tend to consider sonification when dealing with large data sets that have some level of repetitive component. Following the differentiation of a large number of stem cells as they mature into different types of tissue could lend itself to the genre and a team at Cardiff University in Scotland reports they have succeeded. In doing just that.

HealthCanal picked up the university’s piece talking about the project. Unfortunately it does a very poor job of explaining how the process actually works. I did find this piece on ocean microbes that describes the concept of sonification of data pretty well.

Cord blood poised for greater use. I get very uncomfortable when friends ask for medical advice around stem cells. I usually try to give a lay of the land that comes short of direct advice. A common question centers on the value of paying the annual storage fees to freeze their baby’s cord blood. To which, I typically say that for current uses the value is marginal, but for the uses that could come in five to 10 years, it could be quite significant.

So, it was not surprising to read a headline on a Scientific American Blog last December reading “Vast Majority of Life-Saving Cord Blood Sits Unused.” But it was also fun to read a well-documented counter point guest blog on the site this morning by our former President, Alan Trounson. He suggested a better headline would be: “Vast Majority of Life-Saving Cord Blood Sits Poised for Discovery.”

He details how cord blood has become a valuable research tool and lists some of the FDA-approved clinical trials that could greatly expand the indication of cord blood therapy. While some of those trials will likely produce negative results, some will succeed and they all will start to show how to turn those frozen vials into a more valuable resource.

Goodnight, Stem Cells: How Well Rested Cells Keep Us Healthy

Plenty of studies show that a lack of sleep is nothing but bad news and can contribute to a whole host of health problems like heart disease, poor memory, high blood pressure and obesity.

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Even stem cells need rest to stay healthy

In a sense, the same holds true for the stem cells in our body. In response to injury, adult stem cells go to work by dividing and specializing into the cells needed to heal specific tissues and organs. But they also need to rest for long-lasting health. Each cell division carries a risk of introducing DNA mutations—and with it, a risk for cancer. Too much cell division can also deplete the stem cell supply, crippling the healing process. So it’s just as important for the stem cells to assume an inactive, or quiescent, state to maintain their ability to mend the body. Blood stem cells for instance are mostly quiescent and only divide about every two months to renew their reserves.

Even though the importance of this balance is well documented, exactly how it’s achieved is not well understood; that is, until now. Earlier this week, a CIRM-funded research team from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) reported on the identification of an enzyme that’s key in controlling the work-rest balance in blood stem cells, also called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). Their study, published in the journal Blood, could point the way to drugs that treat anemias, blood cancers, and other blood disorders.

Previous studies in other cell types suggested that this key enzyme, called ItpkB, might play a role in promoting a rested state in HSCs. Senior author Karsten Sauer explained their reasoning for focusing on the enzyme in a press release:

“What made ItpkB an attractive protein to study is that it can dampen activating signaling in other cells. We hypothesized that ItpkB might do the same in HSCs to keep them at rest. Moreover, ItpkB is an enzyme whose function can be controlled by small molecules. This might facilitate drug development if our hypothesis were true.”

Senior author Karsten Sauer is an associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute.

Senior author Karsten Sauer is an associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute.

To test their hypothesis, the team studied HSCs in mice that completely lacked ItpkB. Sure enough, without ItpkB the HSCs got stuck in the “on” position and continually multiplied until the supply of HSCs stores in the bone marrow were exhausted. Without these stem cells, the mice could no longer produce red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to the body or white blood cells, which fight off infection. As a result the animals died due to severe anemia and bone marrow failure. Sauer used a great analogy to describe the result:

“It’s like a car—you need to hit the gas pedal to get some activity, but if you hit it too hard, you can crash into a wall. ItpkB is that spring that prevents you from pushing the pedal all the way through.”

With this new understanding of how balancing stem cell activation and deactivation works, Sauer and his team have their sights set on human therapies:

“If we can show that ItpkB also keeps human HSCs healthy, this could open avenues to target ItpkB to improve HSC function in bone marrow failure syndromes and immunodeficiencies or to increase the success rates of HSC transplantation therapies for leukemias and lymphomas.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye; drug screening, aging stem cells in brain repair and blood diseases

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Heart-on-a-chip used to screen drugs. With CIRM funding, a team at the University of California, Berkeley, has used stem cell technology to create a virtual heart on an inch-long piece of silicon. The cells in that “chip” mimic the physiology of a human heart and have shown that they can accurately show how drugs will impact the heart.
HeartChip4196107801
Starting with iPS-type stem cells made from reprogramming adult cells the researchers grew them into heart muscle that could beat and align in multiple layers with microscopic channels that mimic blood vessels. They tested three drugs currently used to treat heart disease and found the changes seen in the heart-on-a-chip were consistent with what is seen in patients. For example, they tested isoproterenol, a drug used to treat slow heart rate and saw a dramatic increase in heart rate.

But the real value in the silicon-housed heart will be in screening potential new drugs and finding out adverse impacts before taking them into costly human clinical trials. Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News wrote up the work and quoted a member of the team, Kevin Healy:

“It takes about $5 billion on average to develop a drug, and 60 percent of that figure comes from upfront costs in the research and development phase. Using a well-designed model of a human organ could significantly cut the cost and time of bringing a new drug to market.”

Brain stem cell activity decreases with age. We have known for some time that the adult stem cells that reside in most of our tissues and spend our lives repairing those tissues are less effective as we age. But the stemness of those cells—their ability to regenerate themselves—has not generally been questioned, rather we have assumed they just lost some of their ability to mature into the type of cell needed to make the repair.

Now, a team at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat in Munich has published data suggesting that brain stem cells over time loose both their ability to renew themselves and some of their ability to become certain kinds of nerves. ScienceDaily picked up a press release from the institution and it quoted one of the authors, Magdalena Gotz, on the implications of their finding for therapy.

“In light of the fact that the stem cell supply is limited, we must now also look for ways to promote the self-renewal rate of the stem cells themselves and maintain the supply for a longer time.”

Another alternative for correcting genetic blood disease. CIRM funds a few programs that are trying to treat blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia by genetically altering blood forming stem cells. The goal being to correct defects in the gene for hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells.

Instead of starting with a patient’s own blood stem cells, which can require a somewhat traumatic harvest procedure, a new approach by a team at the Salk Institute in La Jolla creates iPS type stem cells by reprogramming the cells in a small skin sample. They mature those into blood stem cells and genetically modify them so that they can produce red blood cells that have the correct hemoglobin.

The Salk team uses a modified cold virus to carry the gene into the cell. ScienceDaily picked up the institute’s press release, which quotes one of the co-first authors on the study Mo Li on how the process works:

“It happens naturally, working like a zipper. The good gene just zips in perfectly, pushing the bad one out.”

CIRM funds other work by the senior author, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, but not this project. Because you never know which technology is going to work out best in the long term, it is nice to see other funders stepping up and pushing this alternative forward.

One-Time, Lasting Treatment for Sickle Cell Disease May be on Horizon, According to New CIRM-Funded Study

For the nearly 1,000 babies born each year in the United States with sickle cell disease, a painful and arduous road awaits them. The only cure is to find a bone marrow donor—an exceedingly rare proposition. Instead, the standard treatment for this inherited blood disorder is regular blood transfusions, with repeated hospitalizations to deal with complications of the disease. And even then, life expectancy is less than 40 years old.

In Sickle Cell Disease, the misshapen red blood cells cause painful blood clots and a host of other complications.

In Sickle Cell Disease, the misshapen red blood cells cause painful blood clots and a host of other complications.

But now, scientists at UCLA are offering up a potentially superior alternative: a new method of gene therapy that can correct the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell disease—and thus help the body on its way to generate normal, healthy blood cells for the rest of the patient’s life. The study, funded in part by CIRM and reported in the journal Blood, offers a great alternative to developing a functional cure for sickle cell disease. The UCLA team is about to begin a clinical trial with another gene therapy method, so they—and their patients—will now have two shots on goal in their effort to cure the disease.

Though sickle cell disease causes dangerous changes to a patient’s entire blood supply, it is caused by one single genetic mutation in the beta-globin gene—altering the shape of the red blood cells from round and soft to pointed and hard, thus resembling a ‘sickle’ shape for which the disease is named. But the UCLA team, led by Donald Kohn, has now developed two methods that can correct the harmful mutation. As he explained in a UCLA news release about the newest technique:

“[These results] suggest the future direction for treating genetic diseases will be by correcting the specific mutation in a patient’s genetic code. Since sickle cell disease was the first human genetic disease where we understood the fundamental gene defect, and since everyone with sickle cell has the exact same mutation in the beta-globin gene, it is a great target for this gene correction method.”

The latest gene correction technique used by the team uses special enzymes, called zinc-finger nucleases, to literally cut out and remove the harmful mutation, replacing it with a corrected version. Here, Kohn and his team collected bone marrow stem cells from individuals with sickle cell disease. These bone marrow stem cells would normally give rise to sickle-shaped red blood cells. But in this study, the team zapped them with the zinc-finger nucleases in order to correct the mutation.

Then, the researchers implanted these corrected cells into laboratory mice. Much to their amazement, the implanted cells began to replicate—into normal, healthy red blood cells.

Kohn and his team worked with Sangamo BioSciences, Inc. to design the zinc-finger nucleases that specifically targeted and cut the sickle-cell mutation. The next steps will involve improving the efficiency and safest of this method in pre-clinical animal models, before moving into clinical trials.

“This is a promising first step in showing that gene correction has the potential to help patients with sickle cell disease,” said UCLA graduate student Megan Hoban, the study’s first author. “The study data provide the foundational evidence that the method is viable.”

This isn’t the first disease for which Kohn’s team has made significant strides in gene therapy to cure blood disorders. Just last year, the team announced a promising clinical trial to cure Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome, also known as SCID or “Bubble Baby Disease,” by correcting the genetic mutation that causes it.

While this current study still requires more research before moving into clinical trials, Kohn and his team announced last month that their other gene therapy method, also funded by CIRM, has been approved to start clinical trials. Kohn argues that it’s vital to explore all promising treatment options for this devastating condition:

“Finding varied ways to conduct stem cell gene therapies is important because not every treatment will work for every patient. Both methods could end up being viable approaches to providing one-time, lasting treatments for sickle cell disease and could also be applied to the treatment of a large number of other genetic diseases.”

Find Out More:
Read first-hand about Sickle Cell Disease in our Stories of Hope series.
Watch Donald Kohn speak to CIRM’s governing Board about his research.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: Cancer genetics, cell fate, super donors and tale of road to diabetes cure

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

For cancer growth timing is everything. A study originating at the University of Southern California suggests tumors are born to be bad. Mutations constantly occur during the life of a tumor but those that occur early on determine if a tumor will grow as a benign mass of a cancerous one that spreads.

Describing the genetic markers the team found, the senior author, Christina Curtis, who recently moved to Stanford, was quoted in a story in ScienceBlog:

“What you see in the final cancer was there from the beginning.”

The CIRM funded team completed detailed genetic analysis of tumor cells surgically removed from colon cancer patients. Doctors treating these patients have long been hampered by an inability to tell which tumors will remain small and benign and which will develop into full-blown cancer. The researchers suggest the genetic fingerprints they have uncovered could lead to improved diagnosis for patients.

Physical forces also key to cell fate.
Putting the squeeze on stem cells may be what’s needed to get them to become bone. In this case, a team at the University of California, San Diego, used teeny tiny tweezers called “optical tweezers,” to trigger key internal signals that directed stem cells to go down the path to bone.

Pressure results in release of a cell signal shown in red

Pressure results in release of a cell signal shown in red

We have frequently written about the tremendous importance of a stem cell’s environment—its neighborhood if you will—in determining its fate. Yingxiao Wang, who led the study, described this role in a press release from the university picked up by ScienceNewsline:

“The mechanical environment around a stem cell helps govern a stem cell’s fate. Cells surrounded in stiff tissue such as the jaw, for example, have higher amounts of tension applied to them, and they can promote the production of harder tissues such as bone.”

He said the findings should help researchers trying to replicate the natural stem cell environment in the lab when they try to grow replacement tissues for patients.

Super donors could provide matching tissue.
One of the biggest challenges of using stem cells to replace damaged tissue is avoiding immune system rejection of the new cells. CIRM-grantee Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) announced this week that they have made key initial steps to creating a cell bank that could make this much easier.

Our bodies use molecules on the surface of our cells to identify tissue that is ours versus foreign such as bacteria. The huge variation in those molecules, called HLA, makes the matching needed for donor organ, or donor cells, more difficult than the New York Times Sunday crossword. But a few individuals posses an HLA combination that allows them to match to a large percent of the population.

CDI has now created clinical grade stem cell lines using iPS reprogramming of adult tissue from two such “super donors.” Just those two cell lines provide genetic matches for 19 percent of the population. The company plans to develop additional lines from other super donors with the goal of creating a bank that would cover 95 percent of the population.

Reuters picked up the company’s press release. CIRM does not fund this project, but we do fund another cell bank for which CDI is creating cells to better understand the causes of 11 diseases that have complex genetic origins

Narrative tells the tale of developing diabetes therapy. MIT Technology Review has published a well-told feature about the long road to creating a stem cell-based therapy for diabetes. Author Bran Alexander starts with the early days of the “stem cell wars” and carries the tale through treatment of the first patients in the CIRM-funded clinical trial being carried out by ViaCyte and the University of California, San Diego.

The piece quotes Viacyte’s chief scientific officer Kevin D’Amour about the long road:

“When I first came to ViaCyte 12 years ago, cell replacement through stem cells was so obvious. We all said, ‘Oh, that’s the low-hanging fruit.’ But it turned out to be a coconut, not an apple.”

But the article shows that with Viacyte’s product as well as others coming down the pike, that coconut has been cracked and real hope for diabetics lies inside.

Getting the right tools for the right job

Imagine a device that sits outside the body and works like a form of dialysis for a damaged liver, filtering out the toxins and giving the liver a chance to regenerate, and the patient a chance to avoid the need for a transplant.

Or imagine a method of enhancing the number of stem cells we can harvest or generate from umbilical cord blood, enabling us to use those stem cells and offer life-saving bone marrow transplants to all the patients who don’t have a matched donor.

Well, you may not have to imagine for too long. Yesterday, our governing Board approved almost $30 million in funding for our Tools and Technology Awards and two of the successful applications are for researchers hoping to turn those two ideas into reality.

The Tools n Tech awards may not have the glamor or cache of the big money awards that are developing treatments heading towards clinical trials, but they are nonetheless an essential part of what we do.

As our Board Chair Jonathan Thomas said in a news release they focus on developing new approaches or creating new ways of overcoming some of the biggest obstacles in stem cell research.

“Sometimes even the most promising therapy can be derailed by a tiny problem. These awards are designed to help find ways to overcome those problems, to bridge the gaps in our knowledge and ensure that the best research is able to keep progressing and move out of the lab and into clinical trials in patients.”

Altogether 20 awards were funded for a wide variety of different ideas and projects. Some focus on improving our ability to manufacture the kinds of cells we need for transplanting into patients. Another one plans to use a new class of genetic engineering tools to re-engineer the kind of stem cells found in bone marrow, making them resistant to HIV/AIDS. They also hope this method could ultimately be used to directly target the stem cells while they are inside the body, rather than taking the cells out and performing the same procedure in a lab and later transplanting them back.

Dr. Kent Leach, UC Davis School of Engineering

Dr. Kent Leach, UC Davis School of Engineering

One of the winners was Dr. Kent Leach from the University of California, Davis School of Engineering. He’s looking to make a new kind of imaging probe, one that uses light and sound to measure the strength and durability of bone and cartilage created by stem cells. This could eliminate the need for biopsies to make the same measurements, which is good news for patients and might also help reduce healthcare costs.

We featured Dr. Leach in one of our Spotlight videos where he talks about using stem cells to help repair broken bones that no longer respond to traditional methods.

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.”

UC Davis Surgeons Begin Clinical Trial that Tests New Way to Deliver Stem Cells; Heal Bone Fractures

Each year, approximately 8.9 million people worldwide will suffer a bone fracture. Many of these fractures heal with the help of traditional methods, but for some, the road to recovery is far more difficult.

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After exhausting traditional treatments—such as surgically implanted pins or plates, bed rest and injections to spur bone growth—these patients can undergo a special type of stem cell transplant that directs stem cells extracted from the bone marrow to the fracture site to speed healing.

This procedure has its drawbacks, however. For example, the act of extracting cells from one’s own bone marrow and then injecting them into the fracture site requires two very painful surgical procedures: one to extract the cells, and another to implant them. Recovery times for each procedure, especially in older patients, can be significant.

Enter a team of surgeons at UC Davis. Who last week announced a ‘proof-of-concept’ clinical trial to test a device that can extract and isolate stem cells far more efficiently than before—and allow surgeons to implant the cells into the fracture in just a single surgery.

As described in HealthCanal, he procedure makes use of a reamer-irrigator-aspirator system, or RIA, that normally processes wastewater during bone drilling surgery. As its name implies, this wastewater was thought to be useless. But recent research has revealed that it is chock-full of stem cells.

The problem was that the stem cells were so diluted within the wastewater that they couldn’t be used. Luckily, a device recently developed by Sacramento-based SynGen, Inc., was able to quickly and efficiently extract the cells in high-enough concentrations to then be implanted into the patient. Instead of having to undergo two procedures—the patient now only has to undergo one.

“The device’s small size and rapid capabilities allow autologous stem cell transplantation to take place during a single operation in the operation room rather than requiring two procedures separated over a period of weeks,” said UC Davis surgeon Mark Lee, who is leading the clinical trial. “This is a dramatic difference that promises to make a real impact on healing and patient recovery.”

Hear more from Lee about how stem cells can be used to heal bone fractures in our 2012 Spotlight on Disease.