Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: Skin Cells to Brain Cells in One Fell Swoop, #WeAreResearch Goes Viral, and Genes Helps Stem Cells Fight Disease

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.

Building a Better Brain Cell. Thanks to advances in stem cell biology, scientists have found ways to turn adult cells, such as skin cells, back into cells that closely resemble embryonic stem cells. They can then coax them into becoming virtually any cell in the body.

But scientists have more recently begun to devise ways to change cells from one type into another without first having to go back to a stem cell-like state. And now, a team from Washington University in St. Louis has done exactly that.

As reported this week in New Scientist, researcher Andrew Yoo and his team used microRNAs—a type of ‘signaling molecule’—to reprogram adult human skin cells into medium spiny neurons(MSNs), the type of brain cell involved in the deadly neurodegenerative condition, Huntington’s disease.

“Within four weeks the skin cells had changed into MSNs. When put into the brains of mice, the cells survived for at least six months and made connections with the native tissue,” explained New Scientist’s Clare Wilson.

This process, called ‘transdifferentiation,’ has the potential to serve as a faster, potentially safer alternative to creating stem cells.

#WeAreResearch Puts a Face on Science. The latest research breakthroughs often focus on the science itself, and deservedly so. But exactly who performed that research, the close-knit team who spent many hours at the lab bench and together worked to solve a key scientific problem, can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

#WeAreResearch submission from The Thomson Lab at the University of California, San Francisco. This lab uses optogenetics, and RNAseq to probe cell fate decisions.

#WeAreResearch submission from The Thomson Lab at the University of California, San Francisco. This lab uses optogenetics, and RNAseq to probe cell fate decisions.

Enter #WeAreResearch, a new campaign led by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) that seeks to show off science’s more ‘human side.’

Many California-based stem cell teams have participated—including CIRM grantee Larry Goldstein and his lab!

Check out the entire collection of submissions and, if you’re a member of a lab, submit your own. Prizes await the best submissions—so now’s your chance to get creative.

New Genes Help Stem Cells Fight Infection. Finally, UCLA scientists have discovered how stem cells ‘team up’ with a newly discovered set of genes in order to stave off infection.

Reporting in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology, and summarized in a UCLA news release, Julian Martinez-Agosto and his team describe how two genes—adorably named Yorkie and Scalloped—set in motion a series of events, a molecular Rube Goldberg device, that transforms stem cells into a type of immune system cell.

Importantly, the team found that without these genes, the wrong kind of cell gets made—meaning that these genes play a central role in the body’s healthy immune response.

Mapping out the complex signaling patterns that exist between genes and cells is crucial as researchers try and find ways to, in this case, improve the body’s immune response by manipulating them.

First of its kind stem cell production facility sets its sights on deadly childhood disease

We are used to hearing about immune suppression when transplanting organs or cells from one person to another. It’s a necessary step in preventing the body from attacking the transplanted material. Now Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) has just unveiled its newest tool to treat rare childhood diseases. Instead of focusing on immune suppression this focuses on immune-matching.

CHOC's new stem cell production facility

CHOC’s new stem cell production facility

CHOC has opened up a new stem cell production facility. It’s funded by CIRM and it’s a state-of-the-art mini clean room/manufacturing facility that will allow researchers to produce patient-specific cells for future immune-matching therapies.

“We are excited. We’ve been planning this for at least five years,” says Philip Schwartz, Ph.D., senior scientist at the CHOC Children’s Research Institute and managing director of the National Human Neural Stem Cell Resource.

“The major thing is that the footprint is much smaller than a traditional stem cell manufacturing facility, it’s all housed in one room so that keeps the cost down. The device we use to reproduce the cells is also much smaller so this set up doesn’t require multiple rooms and complex pass-throughs as you move from one room to another. All that meant the cost was only around $500,000 which is many times smaller than the more conventional facility.”

Dr. Schwartz is wasting little time putting the new facility to work. It’s already up and running and culturing cells for his work in developing a treatment for mucopolysaccharidosis (MPS-1), a rare neurodegenerative disease that usually kills children before the age of 10.

He is working on a kind of 1-2 punch approach to the disease. Using donated umbilical cord blood to help replace the child’s damaged immune system and then turning some of those blood stem cells into neural cells, the kind damaged by MPS-1, and transplanting those into the brain to repair and prevent further damage.

“This is a really interesting approach. Bone marrow transplants treat a neck down disease. Brain transplants treat a neck up disease. But conditions like MPS-1 are system wide and need both a neck down and neck up approach. Our approach could help combine those and because the cells are carefully matched also mean they won’t need to be on immune-suppressant therapy for life.”

Dr. Schwartz says animal studies using this two pronged approach have been very encouraging but he cautions there is still a lot of work to do before it would be ready for a clinical trial in people. However, if this approach is effective then it could be useful for more than just MPS-1:

“I have a high level of confidence that this will work and if it does work then we can use it in other conditions as well, such as Multiple Sclerosis. Some clinical studies show that MS patients with leukemia who got a bone marrow transplant also saw a decrease in their MS symptoms.”

Kevin McCormack