Study shows sleep deprivation impairs stem cells in the cornea 

We spend around one third of our life sleeping—or at least we should. Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences on many aspects of our health and has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. 

A study by the American Sleep Apnea Association found that some 70 percent of Americans report getting too little sleep at least one night a month, and 11 percent report not enough sleep every night. Over time that can take a big toll on your mental and physical health. Now a new study says that impact can also put you at increased risk for eye disease.  

The study published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, looked at how sleep deprivation affects corneal stem cells. These cells are essential in replacing diseased or damaged cells in the cornea, the transparent tissue layer that covers and protects the eye.  

Researchers Wei Li, Zugou Liu and colleagues from Xiamen University, China and Harvard Medical School, USA, found that, in mice short-term sleep deprivation increased the rate at which stem cells in the cornea multiplied. Having too many new cells created vision problems.  

They also found that long-term sleep deprivation had an even bigger impact on the health of the cornea. Sleep-deprived mice had fewer active stem cells and so were not as effective in replacing damaged or dying cells. That in turn led to a thinning of the cornea and a loss of transparency in the remaining cells.  

The cornea— the transparent tissue layer covering the eye—is maintained by stem cells, which divide to replace dying cells and to repair small injuries.

The findings suggest that sleep deprivation negatively affects the stem cells in the cornea, possibly leading to vision impairment in the long run. It’s not clear if these findings also apply to people, but if they do, the implications could be enormous.  

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is also heavily involved in searching for treatments for diseases or conditions that affect vision. We have invested almost $150 million in funding 31 projects on vision loss including a clinical trial with UCLA’s Dr. Sophie Deng targeting the cornea, and other clinical trials for age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. 

Shared with permission from International Society for Stem Cell Research. Read the source release here

New funding opportunity in CIRM’s Discovery stage programs: the Foundation Awards 

Applications for CIRM’s new Discovery stage Foundation Awards (DISC 0) are due May 24th, 2022 by 2:00 PM PDT. 

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is pleased to announce a brand new funding opportunity within our Discovery stage programs, the DISC 0 Foundation Awards which will support rigorous studies addressing critical basic knowledge gaps in the biology of stem cells and regenerative medicine approaches, and to advance stem cell-based tools.

Projects funded through the Foundation Awards should propose impactful or innovative research that culminates in a discovery or technology that would:

  • Advance our understanding of the biology of stem or progenitor cells that is relevant to human biology and disease; or 
  • Advance the application of genetic research that is relevant to human biology and disease and pertains to stem cells and regenerative medicine; or
  • Advance the development or use of human stem cells as tools for biomedical innovation; or 
  • Lead to the greater applicability of regenerative medicine discoveries to communities representing the full spectrum of diversity.

Please visit our website to access the DISC 0 PA and read about program requirements. Applications are due May 24th, 2022 by 2:00 PM PDT.

We look forward to your applications!

UCLA-led team creates first comprehensive map of human blood stem cell development

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Human blood stem cells emerging from specialized endothelial cells in the wall of an embryonic aorta. UCLA scientists’ confirmation of this process clarifies a longstanding controversy about the stem cells’ cellular origin. Image Credit: Hanna Mikkola Lab/UCLA, Katja Schenke-Layland Lab/University of Tübingen, Nature

California researchers from UCLA and colleagues have created a first-of-its-kind roadmap that traces each step in the development of blood stem cells in the human embryo, providing scientists with a blueprint for producing fully functional blood stem cells in the lab. 

The research, published in the journal Nature, could help expand treatment options for blood cancers like leukemia and inherited blood disorders such as sickle cell disease, said UCLA’s Dr. Hanna Mikkola, who led the study. 

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has funded and supported Mikkola’s earlier blood stem cell research through various grants

Overcoming Limitations 

Blood stem cells, also called hematopoietic stem cells, can make unlimited copies of themselves and differentiate into every type of blood cell in the human body. For decades, doctors have used blood stem cells from the bone marrow of donors and the umbilical cords of newborns in life-saving transplant treatments for blood and immune diseases.  

However, these treatments are limited by a shortage of matched donors and hampered by the low number of stem cells in cord blood. 

Researchers have long sought to create blood stem cells in the lab from human pluripotent stem cells, which can potentially give rise to any cell type in the body. But success has been elusive, in part because scientists have lacked the instructions to make lab-grown cells become self-renewing blood stem cells rather than short-lived blood progenitor cells, which can only produce limited blood cell types. 

“Nobody has succeeded in making functional blood stem cells from human pluripotent stem cells because we didn’t know enough about the cell we were trying to generate,” said Mikkola. 

A New Roadmap

The new roadmap will help researchers understand the fundamental differences between the two cell types, which is critical for creating cells that are suitable for use in transplantation therapies, said UCLA scientist Vincenzo Calvanese, a co–first author of the research, along with UCLA’s Sandra Capellera-Garcia and Feiyang Ma. 

Researchers Vincenzo Calvanese and Hanna Mikkola. | Credit: Eddy Marcos Panos (left); Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

“We now have a manual of how hematopoietic stem cells are made in the embryo and how they acquire the unique properties that make them useful for patients,” said Calvanese, who is also a group leader at University College London.  

The research team created the resource using new technologies that enable scientists to identify the unique genetic networks and functions of thousands of individual cells and to reveal the location of these cells in the embryo. 

The data make it possible to follow blood stem cells as they emerge and migrate through various locations during their development, starting from the aorta and ultimately arriving in the bone marrow. Importantly, the map unveils specific milestones in their maturation process, including their arrival in the liver, where they acquire the special abilities of blood stem cells. 

The research group also pinpointed the exact precursor in the blood vessel wall that gives rise to blood stem cells. This discovery clarifies a longstanding controversy about the stem cells’ cellular origin and the environment that is needed to make a blood stem cell rather than a blood progenitor cell. 

Through these insights into the different phases of human blood stem cell development, scientists can see how close they are to making a transplantable blood stem cell in the lab. 

A Better Understanding of Blood Cancers

In addition, the map can help scientists understand how blood-forming cells that develop in the embryo contribute to human disease. For example, it provides the foundation for studying why some blood cancers that begin in utero are more aggressive than those that occur after birth. 

“Now that we’ve created an online resource that scientists around the world can use to guide their research, the real work is starting,” Mikkola said. “It’s a really exciting time to be in the field because we’re finally going to be seeing the fruits of our labor.” 

Read the full release here

Reversing hearing loss through regenerative medicine

These images show cellular regeneration, in pink, in a preclinical model of sensorineural hearing loss. The control is on the left and the right has been treated. Image: Hinton AS, Yang-Hood A, Schrader AD, Loose C, Ohlemiller KK, McLean WJ.

Most of us know someone affected by hearing loss, but we may not fully realize the hardships that lack of hearing can bring. Hearing loss can lead to isolation, frustration, and a debilitating ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. It is also closely correlated with dementia. 

The biotechnology company Frequency Therapeutics is seeking to reverse hearing loss — not with hearing aids or implants, but with a new kind of regenerative therapy. The company uses small molecules to program progenitor cells, a descendant of stem cells in the inner ear, to create the tiny hair cells that allow us to hear. 

Progenitor cells generate hair cells when humans are in utero, but they become dormant before birth and never again turn into more specialized cells such as the hair cells of the cochlea. Humans are born with about 15,000 hair cells in each cochlea. Such cells die over time and never regenerate. 

These two images show that one of Frequency’s lead compounds, FREQ-162, drives progenitor cells to turn into oligodendrocytes. The control is on the left and the right has been treated. Image: Frequency Therapeutics

“Tissues throughout your body contain progenitor cells, so we see a huge range of applications,” says Frequency co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Chris Loose Ph.D. “We believe this is the future of regenerative medicine.” 

In 2012, the research team was able to use small molecules to turn progenitor cells into thousands of hair cells in the lab. Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology affiliate faculty member Jeff Karp says no one had ever produced such a large number of hair cells before. He still remembers looking at the results while visiting his family, including his father, who wears a hearing aid. 

“I looked at them and said, ‘I think we have a breakthrough,’” Karp says. “That’s the first and only time I’ve used that phrase.” 

About the Clinical Trial 

Hair cells die off when exposed to loud noises or drugs including certain chemotherapies and antibiotics. Frequency’s drug candidate is designed to be injected into the ear to regenerate these cells within the cochlea. In clinical trials, the company has already improved people’s hearing as measured by tests of speech perception — the ability to understand speech and recognize words. 

In Frequency’s first clinical study, the company saw statistically significant improvements in speech perception in some participants after a single injection, with some responses lasting nearly two years. 

The company has dosed more than 200 patients to date and has seen clinically meaningful improvements in speech perception in three separate clinical studies. Another study failed to show improvements in hearing compared to the placebo group, but the company attributes that result to flaws in the design of the trial. 

Now Frequency is recruiting for a 124-person trial from which preliminary results should be available early next year. 

The company’s founders hope to solve a problem that impacts more than 40 million people in the U.S. and hundreds of millions more around the world. 

“Hearing is such an important sense; it connects people to their community and cultivates a sense of identity,” says Karp. “I think the potential to restore hearing will have enormous impact on society.” 

The founders believe their approach — injecting small molecules into the inner ear to turn progenitor cells into more specialized cells — offers advantages over gene therapies, which may rely on extracting a patient’s cells, programming them in a lab, and then delivering them to the right area. 

“Tissues throughout your body contain progenitor cells, so we see a huge range of applications,” Loose says. “We believe this is the future of regenerative medicine.” 

Read the source article here

UC Davis Health researchers aim to use CAR T cells for HIV cure

Dr. Abedi (right) in the lab at UC Davis Health. He and his team of researchers have launched a study looking to identify a potential cure for HIV. Photo Courtesy of UC Davis Health.

Worldwide, almost 38 million people are living with HIV—the virus that can lead to AIDS— and it’s estimated that 75% of them receive antiviral treatment to keep the virus in check. In California, 150,000 people live with HIV and 68% of these individuals are virally suppressed due to treatment.  

To fight this virus, UC Davis Health researchers—with funding from a CIRM grant—have launched a study looking to identify a potential cure for HIV. Using immunotherapy, researchers will take a patient’s own white blood cells, called T-cells, and modify them so that they can identify and target HIV cells to control the virus without medication. 

Targeting HIV with CAR T cells

“For this study we will educate the cells by inserting a gene to target cells that have been infected by the HIV virus,” explained Mehrdad Abedi, professor of internal medicine, hematology and oncology and the principal investigator of the study. “The idea is these modified cells will attach to the HIV-infected cells and destroy the cells that are infected while also stopping the infected cells’ ability to replicate.” 

Modified T-cells, known as CAR T cells, are an FDA-approved treatment for different forms of cancer including acute lymphoblastic leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. With cancer, the immune system often fails to deploy T-cells right away or at all. When it does, the attack is ineffective. CAR T-cell immunotherapy changes these collected T-cells to produce chimeric antigen receptors (or CARs) that adhere to tumors to destroy them. 

Study seeking HIV patients

For the study, UC Davis Health researchers are working to identify and recruit HIV-positive patients between the ages of 18 and 65 who have had an undetectable HIV viral load for the 12 months and have been on continuous antiretroviral therapy for at least 12 months.  

Patients also need to be willing to pause their antiretroviral therapy as part of the study. 

“While it is exciting, the study will require a lot of dedication from the patient because of the time commitment involved and the necessary steps required,” said Paolo Troia-Cancio, a clinical professor of medicine with the infectious disease division with over 20 years of experience treating HIV and co-investigator on the CAR T cell study.   

The search for an HIV cure 

Three patients have been cured of HIV using bone marrow transplants, including a woman in New York who received a cord blood stem cell transplant. She received a bone marrow transplant using umbilical cord blood donor cells that bore a mutation that makes them resistant to HIV infection to treat her leukemia. 

There have also been two previous cases involving an HIV cure following allogeneic bone marrow transplants. Both patients had leukemia and received bone marrow transplants from donors who carried the same mutation that blocks HIV infection.  

“While these stories provide inspiration and hope to finding a cure for HIV, a bone marrow transplant is not a realistic option for most patients,” said Abedi. “Such transplants are highly invasive and risky, so they are generally offered only to people with cancer who have exhausted all other options.” 

Abedi and his fellow researchers see this study as a potential road map to finding a cure for HIV.  

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has funded earlier work by Dr. Abedi and his team in trying to develop a therapy to help people with HIV who also have lymphoma.  

To read the source article about this CIRM-funded study, click here

Using reengineered human skin cells to treat COVID-19

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Investigators at Cedars-Sinai have identified a potential new therapy for COVID-19: a biologic substance created by reengineered human skin cells.   

In the study—co-funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)—scientists found the substance stopped SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from reproducing itself. The substance also protected infected cells when tested in human lung cells.  

Although still in the early stages, the findings open the possibility of having a new therapy for COVID-19 patients, of which there are few. Current COVID-19 treatments primarily focus on preventing the virus from replicating. This new potential treatment inhibits replication but also protects or repairs tissue, which is important because COVID-19 can cause symptoms that affect patients long after the viral infection has been cleared. 

The potential therapy investigated in this study was created by scientists using skin cells called dermal fibroblasts. The investigators engineered the cells to produce therapeutic extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are nanoparticles that serve as a communication system between cells and tissue. Engineering these fibroblasts allowed them to secrete EVs—which the investigators dubbed “ASTEX”—with the ability to repair tissue. 

The study tested ASTEX by applying it to human lung epithelial cells, cells that line the pulmonary tract and are the targets of SARS-CoV-2 infection. They discovered that ASTEX prevented cells from launching an inflammatory process that could lead to cell death. Cells treated with ASTEX also made fewer of a type of protein called ACE that SARS-CoV-2 may use to infect cells. 

The team compared the new potential treatment with remdesivir, a drug currently used to treat COVID-19, and found that remdesivir did not inhibit production of ACE. Instead, remdesivir stops the virus from latching on to a protein called ACE2. ASTEX, therefore, may present another way to prevent the virus from entering cells. 

“We were surprised to find this potential therapy shuts down a novel pathway for viral replication and also protects infected cells,” said Ahmed G. Ibrahim, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai and first author of the study. 

Investigators at Cedars-Sinai are planning future studies.  

The details of the potential therapy are published in the journal Biomaterials and Biosystems. Read the source article here

How mRNA and CRISPR-Cas9 could treat muscle atrophy

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Researchers use mRNA to introduce the gene editor CRISPR-Cas9 into human muscle stem cells. These cells fused into multinucleated myotubes following mRNA-mediated CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. A myosin heavy chain is seen in green and the nuclei in blue. Photo: Spuler Lab

A team of researchers from Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC) has introduced the gene editor CRISPR-Cas9 into human muscle stem cells for the first time using messenger RNA (mRNA), potentially discovering a method suitable for therapeutic applications. 

The researchers are aiming to discover if this tool can repair mutations that lead to muscle atrophy in humans, and they are one step closer after finding that the method worked in mice suffering from the condition. But the method had a catch, ECRC researcher Helena Escobar says.  

“We introduced the genetic instructions for the gene editor into the stem cells using plasmids – which are circular, double-stranded DNA molecules derived from bacteria.” But plasmids could unintentionally integrate into the genome of human cells, which is also double stranded, and then lead to undesirable effects that are difficult to assess. “That made this method unsuitable for treating patients,” Escobar says.   

Getting mRNA Into Stem Cells

So the team set out to find a better alternative. They found it in the form of mRNA, a single-stranded RNA molecule that recently gained acclaim as a key component of two Covid-19 vaccines. 

To get the mRNA into the stem cells, the researchers used a process called electroporation, which temporarily makes cell membranes more permeable to larger molecules. “With the help of mRNA containing the genetic information for a green fluorescent dye, we first demonstrated that the mRNA molecules entered almost all the stem cells,” explains Christian Stadelmann, a doctoral student at ECRC.  

In the next step, the team used a deliberately altered molecule on the surface of human muscle stem cells to show that the method can be used to correct gene defects in a targeted manner.   

Paving the Way for a Clinical Trial 

Finally, the team tried out a tool similar to the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editor that does not cut the DNA, but only tweaks it at one spot with accuracy. In petri dish experiments, Stadelmann and his team were able to show that the corrected muscle stem cells are just as capable as healthy cells of fusing with each other and forming young muscle fibers. 

Their latest paper, which is appearing in the journal Molecular Therapy Nucleic Acids, paves the way for a clinical trial for patients with hereditary muscle atrophy. The team expects to enroll five to seven patients toward the end of the year. 

“Of course we cannot expect miracles,” says Simone Spuler, head of the Myology Lab at ECRC. “Sufferers who are in wheelchairs won’t just get up and start walking after the therapy. But for many patients, it is already a big step forward when a small muscle that is important for grasping or swallowing functions better again.” 

Read the source article here.

Researchers discover promising approach against treatment-resistant cancer

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Photo: Albert Einstein College of Medicine 

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have devised a promising strategy for overcoming a key cause of cancer deaths: the ability of cancer cells to thrive in the face of chemotherapy drugs designed to destroy them.  

There are cells, called cancer stem cells, that have the ability to evade chemotherapy and lie dormant for a while. But later they can become active again, generate more cancer cells, and cause relapses.  

Published in the March 7 issue of Nature Communications, investigators used a two-drug combination to achieve chemotherapy’s goal: to make cancer cells self-destruct via the biological process known as apoptosis—also known as programmed cell death. 

The treatment worked against human cancer cell lines that resisted apoptosis despite exposure to different types of chemotherapy, and against apoptosis-resistant human tumors implanted in mice. 

“We need new, broadly active therapies that can attack a range of cancers while causing fewer side effects than current treatments, and we hope our new therapeutic strategy will prove to be a viable option,” said Evripidis Gavathiotis, PhD, professor of biochemistry and of medicine at Einstein and corresponding author on the paper. 

How Apoptosis Works 

The body relies on apoptosis for getting rid of unwanted cells, including damaged cells that need to be removed so they don’t develop into cancer cells. Both chemotherapy and radiation rely on damaging cancer cells so they undergo apoptosis, but that doesn’t always happen. 

Every cell in the body contains some two dozen apoptotic proteins that promotes its own destruction. Some proteins stimulate apoptosis (pro-apoptotic proteins), while others block the process (anti-apoptotic proteins).  

BAX—The Executioner Protein

The new drug combination discovered by researchers at Einstein kills apoptosis-resistant cancer cells by boosting the active form of one pro-apoptotic protein in particular: BAX, dubbed the “executioner protein.” They then combined that with Navitoclax, an investigational  cancer drug that blocked the activity of proteins that inhibit the effectiveness of BAX. 

When the Einstein team tested the drug duo against 46 human blood and solid tumor cell lines, it packed a one-two punch, boosting active BAX to toxic levels in cancer cells, and Navitoclax acting as BAX’s bodyguard by preventing other proteins from neutralizing BAX. 

Limiting Side Effects 

The two orally-administered drugs were then tested in mice implanted with tumor cells from a colorectal-cancer cell line that had resisted one version of BAX and Navitoclax as individual drugs but had succumbed to their combined use. The in vivo experiment produced similar results.  

Individually, each drug had limited effectiveness in reducing tumor growth, while combining them significantly suppressed tumor growth, indicating that the two drugs act synergistically to defeat apoptosis-resistant tumors. 

“Equally important, mice receiving the two-drug combination tolerated it remarkably well,” noted Dr. Gavathiotis. “Moreover, analysis of the treated mice showed that healthy cells were not affected by the two-drug combination—likely making it safer than standard chemotherapies, which are toxic to all dividing cells, both cancerous and normal.” 

Read the source article here.

How a health tech company is using virtual reality to treat stem cell patients 

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Photo: Jessica Lewis

Virtual reality may soon be used to treat cancer patients who are recovering from stem cell procedures.  

Healthcare technology company Rocket VR Health—in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital—is developing a virtual reality (VR) therapy that intends to enhance the quality of life of cancer patients who receive stem cell transplants.  

Specifically, the therapy is intended to help with distress management in blood cancer patients undergoing blood stem cell transplantation (HCT) in an in-clinic setting. HCT (short for hematopoietic cell transplantation) can be used to treat certain types of cancer, such as leukemia, myeloma, and lymphoma, and other blood and immune system diseases that affect the bone marrow. 

The average hospital length of stay for patients with hematologic malignancies—cancers that start in blood forming tissues such as bone marrow—who undergo HCT is typically 28 days. During the hospitalization period, patients can’t leave their rooms as their immune system is weakened while their bone marrow is re-generated.  

As contact with the outside world is limited during recovery, patients may endure significant short-term and long-term distress that affects their physical and psychological well-being. 

The treatment being developed consists of psychoeducation, therapy, and relaxation exercises in a VR environment designed to be self-administered by patients. The immersive environment aims to give patients access to the outside world virtually while being confined to their hospital room. 

It is reported that patients who receive integrated psychological interventions during their hospital stays have fewer depression and PTSD symptoms than those who receive standard transplant care alone. 

Rocket VR Health hopes to create a therapy that hospitals and health systems can offer to patients using clinically validated therapies over fully-immersive virtual reality to make psychosocial care more accessible and effective. 

Could a common herb help in the fight against COVID-19 and other inflammatory diseases?

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The culinary herb rosemary is commonly used in our kitchens to season an array of dishes, and is also considered a good source for vitamins and minerals.  

Rosemary is also valued for its medicinal properties, and has traditionally been used to help alleviate muscle pain, boost the immune and circulatory system, as well as many other health benefits. 

Now, scientists at Scripps Research have found evidence that a compound contained in rosemary could be a two-pronged weapon against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19.  

The research was partly funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). 

Published in the journal Antioxidants, the study found that the compound, carnosic acid, can block the interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 outer “spike” protein and the receptor protein, ACE2, which the virus uses to gain entry to cells. 

“We think that carnosic acid, or some optimized derivative, is worth investigating as a potentially cheap, safe, and effective treatment for COVID-19 and some other inflammation-related disorders,” says study senior author Dr. Stuart Lipton of Scripps Research. 

The team also reviewed prior studies and presented new evidence that carnosic acid could inhibit a powerful inflammatory pathway that is active in severe COVID-19, as well as in other diseases including Alzheimer’s.   

They also proposed that this effect could be beneficial in treating the post-COVID syndrome known as “long COVID” whose reported symptoms include cognitive difficulties often described as “brain fog.” 

While the research is preliminary, the researchers propose that carnosic acid has this antiviral effect because it is converted to its active form by the inflammation and oxidation found at sites of infection. In that active form, they suggest, the compound modifies the ACE2 receptor for SARS-CoV-2—making the receptor impregnable to the virus and thereby blocking infection. 

Lipton and his colleagues are now working with Scripps Research chemists to synthesize and test more potent derivatives of carnosic acid with improved drug characteristics for potential use in inflammation-related disorders. 

The full study was co-authored by Takumi Satoh of the Tokyo University of Technology; and by Dorit Trudler, Chang-ki Oh and Stuart Lipton of Scripps Research. Read the source news release here

Disclaimer: This research is still in its early phase and there is no suggestion that sprinkling rosemary on everything you eat could help prevent or fight COVID-19. For the latest guidance on COVID-19, see the official CDC website.