Stem cell stories that caught our eye: colitis, ALS, diabetes and scaling up production of nerve cells

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.

Stem Cells for colitis. A team of British and Danish researcher found a population of intermediate stem cells that divide more readily than the adult stem cells normally found in the gut. They could grow the cells in the lab indefinitely without them maturing into adult cells. But when they transplanted the cells into mice with inflammatory bowel disease, within three hours the cells converted to adult gut cells and repaired the inflammatory damage. The researchers initially isolated the robust cells from mouse embryos. They have since been able to create similar cells from stem cells created by reprograming human skin tissue, iPS cells, opening up the option of personalized therapy. The research was published in Cell Stem Cell and written about on HEALTHCANAL.

Drug for ALS found using stem cells. We often write about the power of reprogrammed stem cells, so called iPS cells, to act as a stem cell disease-in-a-dish model. Now, researchers at Johns Hopkins have used iPS cells made from patients with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, to find a drug that seems to halt the damage programmed into the cells by ALS (here’s a story about the work). They investigated a gene mutation known to be associated with the disease in 40 percent of patients with the inherited form of ALS. They found that the mutation, which consists of a segment of DNA being repeated several times, prevents cells from properly reading neighboring genes. That results in the cells being unable to make the needed proteins coded in those genes. The Hopkins team found a compound that acts like Velcro to stick to and cover the error so that the cell’s gene reading equipment can pass over it and do its job properly. This first step is a long way from a viable drug in human, but it is a logical approach with promise.

Mini pancreas in a dish. Danish researchers have turned stem cells into pancreatic tissue that grows rapidly in a lab dish and is able to form several types of tissue. Those various tissues produced insulin or other hormones normally produced in the pancreas. The Danes adopted the methodology used by other teams that have succeeded in producing complex tissue from stem cells in the past year or so. They grew the cells in 3-D cultures not just flat lab dishes. They found that the cells grown in a cluster have a community effect that lets them expand more efficiently. The work was published in the journal Development and written about by Fierce Drug Delivery. You can read about work CIRM funds aimed at creating new pancreatic tissue on our stem cells for diabetes information page.

Fast, efficient clinical grade nerve cells. As stem cell science moves closer to the clinic, we see many obstacles around scaling up academic lab work to industrial size batches of cells. While dozens of teams have made nerve cells from pluripotent stem cells, they have generally used materials that are not clinical grade. In other words, the cells they produce cannot be used in human patients. They have also generally required an inefficient multiple step process to get to the desired cells. Recently industry researchers with Life Technologies in San Diego have teamed up a group at the Buck Institute in Novato, California to develop a simple one-step process to yield nerve cells using only clinical grade materials and conditions. The new process sets the stage for producing enough cells for broad clinical treatments. The work was published in the journal CIRM supported Stem Cells Translational Medicine and the journal’s press release is online.

Don Gibbons

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