Stem cell stories that caught our eye: menstrual cycle on a chip, iPS cells from urine, Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Symposium videos

Say hello to EVATAR, a mini female reproductive system on a 3D chip. (Karen Ring)
I was listening to the radio this week in my car and caught snippets of a conversation that mentioned the word “Evatar”. Having tuned in halfway through the story, naturally I thought that the reporters were talking about James Cameron’s sequel to Avatar, and was slightly puzzled about the early press since the sequel isn’t expected to come out until 2020.

I was wrong in my assumption, but not that far off. It turns out that they were actually talking about a cutting edge new technology that generates artificial organs on 3D microfluidic chips. In the case of EVATAR, scientists have developed a functioning mini female reproductive system with all the essential components to recreate the female menstrual cycle. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s real. If you don’t believe me, you can read the publication in the journal Nature Communications.

EVATAR is a 3D organ-on-a-chip representing the female reproductive system. (Photo credit: Woodruff Lab, Northwestern University.)

 The chip consists of small boxes that each house an essential component of the reproductive system including the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, and vagina. These tissues are generated from human stem cells except for the ovaries which were derived from mouse stem cells. The mini organs are connected to each other by tiny tubes and pumps that simulate blood flow and create a complete reproductive system. By adding specific hormones to this chip, the scientists stimulated the ovaries to produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone and even release an egg.

With EVATAR up and running, scientists are planning to use these personalized devices for various medical purposes including understanding reproductive diseases like endometriosis and testing how drugs affect specific people. The team is also developing a male version of this 3D reproductive chip called ADATAR and plans to study the two models side by side to understand differences in drug metabolism between men and women.

EVATAR is part of a larger project spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health to develop a “body-on-a-chip”. The lead author on the study, Teresa Woodruff from Northwestern University, explained in a news release how scaling down a human body to the size of a small chip that fits in your hand scales up the impact that the technology can have on developing personalized medicine for patients with various diseases.

“If I had your stem cells and created a heart, liver, lung and an ovary, I could test 10 different drugs at 10 different doses on you and say, ‘Here’s the drug that will help your Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or diabetes. It’s the ultimate personalized medicine, a model of your body for testing drugs.”

EVATAR has been popular in the press and was picked up by news outlets like NPR, STAT news and Tech Times. You can learn more about this technology by watching the video below provided by Northwestern Medicine.

Abracadabra: Researchers make stem cells from urine (Todd Dubnicoff)
I think one of the reasons the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technique became a Nobel Prize winning breakthrough, is due to its simplicity. All it takes is a slightly invasive skin biopsy and the addition of a few key factors to reprogram the skin cells into an embryonic stem cell-like state. The method is a game-changer for studying brain development disorders like Down Syndrome. Brain cells from affected individuals are not accessible so deriving these cells from iPSCs is critical in examining the differences between a healthy and Down Syndrome brain.

But skin biopsies are not “slightly invasive” when working with adults or children with an intellectual disability like Down Syndrome. The oversight committees that evaluate the ethics of a proposed human research study often denied such procedures. And even when they are approved, patients or caregivers have often dropped out of studies due to the biopsy method. This sensitive situation has hampered the progress of iPSC-based studies of Down Syndrome.

This week, a research team at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine reported in STEM CELLS Translational Medicine that they’ve overcome this obstacle with a truly non-invasive procedure: collect cells via urine samples. But wait there’s more. It turns out that iPSCs derived from urine are more stable than their skin biopsy counterparts. The team believes it’s because skin cells, unlike cells found in urine, are exposed to the sunlight’s DNA-damaging UV radiation.

So far the team has banked iPSC lines from ten individuals with Down Syndrome which they will share with other researchers. Team lead Alberto Costa described the importance of these cell lines in a press release:

“Our methods represent a significant improvement in iPSC technology, and should be an important step toward the development of human cell-based platforms that can be used to test new medications designed to improve the quality of life of people with Down syndrome.”

ICYMI the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Symposium Talks are Now on YouTube!
Last week, City of Hope hosted a fantastic meeting featuring the efforts of our CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics. It was the second annual symposium and it featured talks from scientists, doctors, patients and advocates about the advancements in stem cell-based clinical trials and the impacts those trials have had on the lives of patients.

We wrote about the symposium earlier this week, but we couldn’t capture all the amazing talks and stories that were shared throughout the day. Luckily, the City of Hope filmed all the talks and they are now available on YouTube. Below are a few that we selected, but be sure to check out the rest on the City of Hope YouTube page.


CIRM President and CEO Randy Mills highlights the goals of the CIRM Alpha Clinics Network and what’s been achieved since its inception in 2014. 


CIRM’s Geoffrey Lomax talks about how the vision of the Alpha Clinics has turned into a reality for patients.

CIRM-funded UC Irvine Scientist, Henry Klassen, talks about his promising stem cell clinical trial for patients with a blinding disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa.

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One thought on “Stem cell stories that caught our eye: menstrual cycle on a chip, iPS cells from urine, Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Symposium videos

  1. Mind-blowing biotechnology that exemplifies why California leads the world on the front lines of scientific R&D. Thanks for communicating such an exciting development so eloquently.

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