Stem Cell Roundup: Battle of the Biotech Bands, “Cells I See” Art Contest and Teaching Baseball Fans the Power of Stem Cells

This Friday’s stem cell roundup is dedicated to the playful side of stem cell science. Scientists are often stereotyped as lab recluses who honorably forgo social lives in the quest to make game-changing discoveries and advance cutting-edge research. But as a former bench scientist, I can attest that scientists are normal people too. They might have a nerdy, slightly neurotic side around their field of research, but they know how to enjoy life and have fun. So here are a few stories that caught our eye this week about scientists having a good time with science.

Rockin’ researchers battle for glory (Kevin McCormack)

Did you know that Bruce Springsteen got his big break after winning the Biotech Battle of the Bands (BBOB)? Probably not, I just made that up. But just because Bruce didn’t hit it big because of BBOB doesn’t mean you can’t.

BBOB is a fun chance for you and your labmates, or research partners, to cast off your lab coats, pick up a guitar, form a band, show off your musical chops, play before a live audience and raise money for charity.  This is the fourth year the event is being held. It’s part of Biotech Week Boston, on Wednesday, September 27th at the Royale Nightclub, Boston.

Biotech Week is a celebration of science and, duh, biotech; bringing together what the event organizers call “the most inventive scientific minds and business leaders in Boston and around the world.” And they wouldn’t lie would they, after all, they’re scientists.

If you want to check out the competition here’s some video from a previous year – see if you can spot the man with the cowbell!

“Cells I See” Stem Cell Art Contest

It’s that time again! The “Cells I See” art contest hosted by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization for Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) and The Stem Cell Network is now open for business. This is a super fun event that celebrates the beauty of stem cells and biomaterials that support regenerative medicine.

Not only is “Cells I See” a great way for scientists to share their research with the public, it’s also a way for them to tap into their artistic, creative side. Last year’s ­contestants submitted breathtaking microscope images, paintings and graphic designs of stem cells in action. The titles for these art submissions were playful. “Nucleic Shower” “The Quest for Innervation” and “Flat, Fluorescent & Fabulous” were some of my favorite title entries.

There are two prizes for this contest. The grand prize of $750 will be awarded to the submission with the highest number of votes from scientists attending the Till and McCulloch Stem Cell Meeting in November. There is also a “People’s Choice” prize of $500 given to the contestant who has the most numbers of likes on the CCRM Facebook page.

The deadline for “Cell I See” submissions is September 8th so you have plenty of time to get your creative juices flowing!

Iris

The 2016 Grand Prize and People’s Choice Winner, Sabiha Hacibekiroglu, won for her photo titled “Iris”.

Scientists Teach Baseball Fans the Power of Stem Cells

San Francisco Giants fans who attended Tuesday’s ball game were in for a special treat – a science treat that is. Researchers from the Gladstone Institutes partnered with the SF Giants to raise awareness about the power of stem cells for advancing research and developing cures for various diseases.

Gladstone PhD student Jessica Butts explains the Stem Cell Plinko game to a Giants fan.

The Gladstone team had a snazzy stem cell booth at the Giant’s Community Clubhouse with fun science swag and educational stem cell activities for fans of all ages. One of the activities was a game called “Stem Cell Plinko” where you drop a ball representing a pluripotent stem cell down a plinko board. The path the ball travels represents how that stem cell differentiates or matures into adult cells like those in the heart.

Gladstone also debuted their new animated stem cell video, which explains how “stem cell research has opened up promising avenues for personalized and regenerative medicine.”

Finally, Gladstone scientists challenged fans to participate in a social media contest about their newfound stem cell knowledge cells on Twitter. The winner of the contest, a woman named Nicole, will get an exclusive, behind-the-scenes lab tour at the Gladstone and “see firsthand how Gladstone is using stem cells to overcome disease.”

The Gladstone “Power of Stem Cells” event is a great example of how scientists are trying to make research and science more accessible to the public. It not only benefits people by educating them about the current state of stem cell research, but also is a fun way for scientists to engage with the local community.

“Participating in the SF Giants game was very fun,” said Megan McDevitt, vice president of communications at the Gladstone Institutes. “Our booth experienced heavy traffic all evening, giving us a wonderful opportunity to engage with the San Francisco community about science and, more specifically, stem cell research. We were delighted to see how interested fans were to learn more on the topic.”

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Giants won, something that hasn’t been happening very much this season.

Go Giants. Go Gladstone.

Gladstone scientist dropping stem cell knowledge to Giants fans.

‘Pay-to-Participate’ stem cell clinical studies, the ugly stepchild of ClinicalTrials.gov

When patients are looking for clinical trials testing new drugs or treatments for their disease, one of the main websites they visit is ClinicalTrials.gov. It’s a registry provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of approximately 250,000 clinical trials spanning over 200 countries around the world.

ClinicalTrials.gov website

If you visit the website, you’ll find CIRM’s 28 active clinical trials testing stem cell-based therapies for indications like spinal cord injury, type 1 diabetes, heart failure, ALS, cancer and more. These are Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved trials, meaning that researchers did the proper preclinical studies to prove that a therapy was safe and effective in animal models and received approval from the US FDA to test the treatment in human clinical trials.

As the largest clinical registry in the world, ClinicalTrials.gov is a very valuable resource for patients and the public. But there are studies on the website that have recently surfaced and taken on the role of ‘ugly stepchild’. These are unapproved stem cell therapies from companies and stem cell clinics that are registering their “pay-to-participate treatments”. And they are doing so in clever ways that don’t make it obvious to patients that the trials aren’t legitimate. The reason this is so troubling is that unproven therapies can be dangerous or even life-threatening to patients.

Leigh Turner

Leigh Turner, an associate professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota, has written extensively about the serious problem of stem cell clinics marketing unproven stem cell therapies to desperate patients. Turner, in collaboration with UC Davis professor Dr. Paul Knoepfler, published a study in Cell Stem Cell last year that identified over 550 clinics in the US that promote unproven treatments for almost any condition, including diseases like Alzheimer’s where research has shown that cures are a long way off.

Today, Turner published an article in Regenerative Medicine that shines a light on how companies and clinics are taking advantage of ClinicalTrials.gov to promote their “pay-to-participate” unproven stem cell studies. The article is available for free if you register with RegMedNet, but you can find news coverage about Turner’s piece through EurekAlert,  Wired Magazine and the San Diego Union Tribune.

In an interview with RegMedNet, Turner explained that his research into how businesses promote unproven stem cell therapies led to the discovery that these studies were being listed as “pay-to-participate” on ClinicalTrials.gov.

“Many of these businesses use websites, social media, YouTube videos, webinars and other tools to engage in direct-to-consumer marketing of supposed stem cell therapies. To my surprise, at one point I noticed that some of these companies had successfully listed “pay-to-participate” studies on ClinicalTrials.gov. Many of these “studies” look to me like little more than marketing exercises, though of course the businesses listing them would presumably argue that they are genuine clinical studies.”

While FDA-approved trials can charge study participants, most don’t. If they do, it’s motivated by recovering costs rather than making a profit. Turner also explained that organizations with FDA-approved studies “need to prepare a detailed rationale and a budget, and obtain approval from the FDA.”

Companies with unproven stem cell therapies are ignoring these regulatory requirements and listing their studies as “patient-funded” or “patient-sponsored”. Turner found seven such “pay-to-participate” studies sponsored by US companies on ClinicalTrials.gov. He also identified 11 studies where companies don’t indicate that patients have to pay, but do charge patients to participate in the studies.

Turner is concerned that these companies are using ClinicalTrials.gov to take advantage of innocent patients who don’t realize that these unproven treatments aren’t backed by solid scientific research.

“Patients have already been lured to stem cell clinics that use ClinicalTrials.gov to market unproven stem cell interventions. Furthermore, some patients have been injured after undergoing stem cell procedures at such businesses. Many individuals use ClinicalTrials.gov to find legitimate, well-designed, and carefully conducted clinical trials. They are at risk of being misled by study listings that lend an air of legitimacy and credibility to clinics promoting unproven and unlicensed stem cell interventions.”

Having identified the problem, Turner is now advocating for a solution.

“ClinicalTrials.gov needs to raise the bar and perform a proper review of studies before they are registered. Better screening is needed before more patients and research subjects are harmed. It’s astonishing that officials at the NIH and US FDA haven’t already done something to address this obvious matter of patient safety. Putting a disclaimer on the website isn’t sufficient.”

The disclaimer that Turner is referring to is a statement on the ClinicalTrials.gov website that says, “Listing of a study on this site does not reflect endorsement by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”

Turner argues that this disclaimer “simply isn’t sufficient.”

“Patients and their loved ones, physicians, researchers, journalists, and many other individuals all use ClinicalTrials.gov because they regard the registry and database as a source of meaningful, credible information about clinical studies. I suspect most individuals would be shocked at how easy it is to register on ClinicalTrials.gov studies that have obvious methodological problems, do not appear to comply with applicable federal regulations or have glaring ethical shortcomings.”

While Turner acknowledges that the NIH database of clinical trials is a “terrific public resource” that he himself has used, he regards it “as a collective good that needs to be protected from parties willing to misuse and abuse it.” His hope is that his article will give journalists the starting material to conduct further investigators into these pay-to-participate studies and the companies behind them. He also hopes that “such coverage will help convince NIH officials that they have a crucial role to play in making ClinicalTrials.gov a resource people can turn to for information about credible clinical trials rather than allowing it to become a database corrupted and devalued by highly problematic studies.”

Convincing is one thing, but implementing change is another. Turner said in his interview that he knows that “careful screening by NIH officials will require more resources, and I am making this argument at a time when much of the political discourse in the U.S. is about cutting funding for the CDC, FDA, NIH and other federal agencies.”

He remains hopeful however and concluded that “perhaps there are ways to jolt into action people who are in positions of power and who can act to help prevent the spread of misinformation, bad science, and marketing packaged as clinical research.”

One man’s journey with leukemia has turned into a quest to make bone marrow stem cell transplants safer

Dr. Lukas Wartman in his lab in March 2011 (left), before he developed chronic graft-versus-host disease, and last month at a physical therapy session (right). (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

I read a story yesterday in Science Magazine that really stuck with me. It’s about a man who was diagnosed with leukemia and received a life-saving stem cell transplant that is now threatening his health.

The man is name Lukas Wartman and is a doctor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He was first diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2003. Since then he has taken over 70 drugs and undergone two rounds of bone marrow stem cell transplants to fight off his cancer.

The first stem cell transplant was from his brother, which replaced Wartman’s diseased bone marrow, containing blood forming stem cells and immune cells, with healthy cells. In combination with immunosuppressive drugs, the transplant worked without any complications. Unfortunately, a few years later the cancer returned. This time, Wartman opted for a second transplant from an unrelated donor.

While the second transplant and cancer-fighting drugs have succeeded in keeping his cancer at bay, Wartman is now suffering from something equally life threatening – a condition called graft vs host disease (GVHD). In a nut shell, the stem cell transplant that cured him of cancer and saved his life is now attacking his body.

GVHD, a common side effect of bone marrow transplants

GVHD is a disease where donor transplanted immune cells, called T cells, expand and attack the cells and tissues in your body because they see them as foreign invaders. GVHD occurs in approximately 50% of patients who receive bone marrow, peripheral blood or cord blood stem cell transplants, and typically affects the skin, eyes, mouth, liver and intestines.

The main reason why GVHD is common following blood stem cell transplants is because many patients receive transplants from unrelated donors or family members who aren’t close genetic matches. Half of patients who receive these types of transplants develop an acute form of GVHD within 100 days of treatment. These patients are put on immunosuppressive steroid drugs with the hope that the patient’s body will eventually kill off the aggressive donor T cells.

This was the case for Wartman after the first transplant from his brother, but the second transplant from an unrelated donor eventually caused him to develop the chronic form of GVHD. Wartman is now suffering from weakened muscles, dry eyes, mouth sores and skin issues as the transplanted immune cells slowly attack his body from within. Thankfully, his major organs are still untouched by GVHD, but Wartman knows it could be only a matter of time before his condition worsens.

Dr. Lukas Wartman has to use eye drops every 20 minutes to deal with dry eyes caused by GVHD. (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

Hope for GVHD sufferers

Wartman along with other GVHD patients are basically guinea pigs in a field where effective drugs are still being developed and tested. Many of these patients, including Wartman, have tried many unproven treatments or drugs for other disease conditions in desperate hope that something will work. It’s a situation that is heartbreaking not only for the patient but also for their families and doctors.

There is hope for GVHD patients however. Science Magazine mentioned two promising drugs for GVHD, ibrutinib and ruxolitinib. Both received breakthrough therapy designation from the US Food and Drug Administration and could be the first approved treatments for GVHD.

Another promising therapy is called Prochymal. It’s a stem cell therapy developed by former CIRM President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, at Osiris Therapeutics. Prochymal is already approved to treat the acute form of GVHD in Canada, and is currently being tested in phase 3 trials in the US in young children and adults.

While CIRM isn’t currently funding clinical trials for GVHD, we are funding a trial out of Stanford University led by Dr. Judy Shizuru that aims to improve the outcome of bone marrow stem cell transplants in patients. Shizuru says that these transplants are “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation” but they come with their own set of potentially deadly side effects such as GVHD.

Shizuru is testing an antibody drug that blocks a signaling protein called CD117, which sits on the surface of blood stem cells and acts as an elimination signal. By turning off this protein, her team improved the engraftment of bone marrow stem cells in mice that had leukemia and removed their need for chemotherapy treatment. The therapy is in a Phase 1 trial for patients with an immune disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) who receive bone marrow transplants, but Shizuru said that her hope is the drug could also treat patients with certain cancers or blood diseases.

Advocating for better GVHD treatments

The reason the article in Science Magazine spoke to me is because of the power of Wartman’s story. Wartman’s battle with ALL and now GVHD has transformed him into one of the strongest patient voices advocating for the development of new GVHD treatments. Jon Cohen, the author of the Science Magazine article, explained:

“The urgency of his case has turned Wartman into one of the world’s few patients who advocate for GVHD research, prevention, and treatment. ‘Most people it affects suffer quietly,” says Wartman. ‘They’re grateful they’re alive, and they’re beaten down. It’s the paradox of being cured and dying of the cure. Even if you can get past that, you don’t have the energy to advocate, and that’s really tragic.’”

Patients like Wartman are an inspiration not only to other people with GVHD, but also to funding agencies and scientists working to advance GVHD research towards a cure. We don’t want these patients to suffer quietly. Wartman’s story is an important reminder that there’s a lot more work to do to make bone marrow transplants safer – so that they save lives without later putting those lives at risk.

One day, scientists could grow the human cardiovascular system from stem cells

The human cardiovascular system is an intricate, complex network of blood vessels that include arteries, capillaries and veins. These structures distribute blood from the heart to all parts of the body, from our head to our toes, and back again.

This week, two groups of scientists published studies showing that they can create key components of the human cardiovascular system from human pluripotent stem cells. These technologies will not only be valuable for modeling the cardiovascular system, but also for developing transplantable tissues to treat patients with cardiovascular or vascular diseases.

Growing capillaries using 3D printers

Scientists from Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine are using 3D printers to make functioning capillaries. These are tiny, thin vessels that transport blood from the arteries to the veins and facilitate the exchange of oxygen, nutrients and waste products between the blood and tissues. Capillaries are made of a single layer of endothelial cells stitched together by cell structures called tight junctions, which create an impenetrable barrier between the blood and the body.

In work published in the journal Biomaterials Science, the scientists discovered two materials that coax human stem cell-derived endothelial cells to develop into capillary-like structures. They found that adding mesenchymal stem cells to the process, improved the ability of the endothelial cells to form into the tube-like structures resembling capillaries. Lead author on the study, Gisele Calderon, explained their initial findings in an interview with Phys.org,

“We’ve confirmed that these cells have the capacity to form capillary-like structures, both in a natural material called fibrin and in a semisynthetic material called gelatin methacrylate, or GelMA. The GelMA finding is particularly interesting because it is something we can readily 3-D print for future tissue-engineering applications.”

Scientists grow capillaries from stem cells using 3D gels. (Image Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

The team will use their 3D printing technology to develop more accurate models of human tissues and their vast network of capillaries. Their hope is that these 3D printed tissues could be used for more accurate drug testing and eventually as implantable tissues in the clinic. Co-senior author on the study, Jordan Miller, summarized potential future applications nicely.

“Ultimately, we’d like to 3D print with living cells … to create fully vascularized tissues for therapeutic applications. You could foresee using these 3D printed tissues to provide a more accurate representation of how our bodies will respond to a drug. The potential to build tissue constructs made from a particular patient represents the ultimate test bed for personalized medicine. We could screen dozens of potential drug cocktails on this type of generated tissue sample to identify candidates that will work best for that patient.”

Growing functioning arteries

In a separate study published in the journal PNAS, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Morgridge Institute reported that they can generate functional arterial endothelial cells, which are cells that line the insides of human arteries.

The team used a lab technique called single-cell RNA sequencing to identify important signaling factors that coax human pluripotent stem cells to develop into arterial endothelial cells. The scientists then used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology to develop arterial “reporter cell lines”, which light up like Christmas trees when candidate factors are successful at coaxing stem cells to develop into arterial endothelial cells.

Arterial endothelial cells derived from human pluripotent stem cells. (The Morgridge Institute for Research)

Using this two-pronged strategy, they generated cells that displayed many of the characteristic functions of arterial endothelial cells found in the body. Furthermore, when they transplanted these cells into mice that suffered a heart attack, the cells helped form new arteries and improved the survival rate of these mice significantly. Mice who received the transplanted cells had an 83% survival rate compared to untreated mice who only had a 33% survival rate.

In an interview with Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, senior author on the study James Thomson, explained the significance of their findings,

“Our ultimate goal is to apply this improved cell derivation process to the formation of functional arteries that can be used in cardiovascular surgery. This work provides valuable proof that we can eventually get a reliable source for functional arterial endothelial cells and make arteries that perform and behave like the real thing.”

In the future, the scientists have set their sights on developing a universal donor cell line that can treat large populations of patients without fear of immune rejection. With cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death around the world, the demand for such a stem cell-based therapy is urgent.

Lights, Camera, Stem Cells! How photo-responsive hydrogels can improve stem cell therapies

Watching a movie in IMAX 3D.

These days, going to the movie theater is like riding the wildest rollercoaster at your local theme park. It can be an IMAX 3D, surround sound, vibrating seat experience that makes you feel like you’re living the actual movie.

As the entertainment industry evolves towards more intense, realistic cinematic experiences, scientists are following a similar path towards 3D technologies that will improve stem cell-based therapies for biomedical applications. One such technology is called a hydrogel. Hydrogels are biological materials made of either synthetic polymers or natural molecules that scientists use to simulate the native environment in which cells and tissues develop.

Growing stem cells on a flat surface, such as a culture dish, is like watching a movie in a standard, less immersive 2D theater – the stem cells aren’t in their typical 3D environment where they receive biochemical and physical cues to develop into the appropriate cell types of the tissue they are destined to become.

With hydrogels, scientists can more closely mimic a stem cell’s natural environment, or what is called the “stem cell niche”. A lot of research has been dedicated towards fine-tuning hydrogels in a way that can control how stem cells behave and mature. We’ve blogged on this topic previously, and today we bring you an update on a new type of hydrogel that improves upon current technologies.

Scientists from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology created photo-responsive or light-sensitive hydrogels that they used to grow human mesenchymal stem cells in 3D cultures. These hydrogels contain a vitamin B12-dependent, photo-responsive protein called CarHC. In the dark, coenzyme B12 binds to CarHC and triggers the protein to self-assemble into polymers that create an elastic hydrogel structure. When exposed to light, B12 is absorbed and can no longer bind CarHC, causing the hydrogel structure to dissolve into a liquid solution.

A hydrogel containing mesenchymal stem cells. (Image courtesy of Harvard Paulson School).

This photo-responsive hydrogel is the equivalent of a light-sensing switch that allows the scientists to capture or release stem cells without damaging them or affecting their viability. Senior author on the study, Dr. Fei Sun, elaborated in an interview with Phys.org,

“The resulting hydrogel composed of physically self-assembled CarHC polymers exhibited a rapid gel-solultion transition on light exposure, which enabled the facile release/recovery of 3T3 fibroblasts and human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) from 3D cultures while maintaining their viability.”

Sun’s team is one of the first to report the development of photo-sensitive “smart” hydrogels for stem cell research applications. Looking forward, Sun believes that their technology will be useful for making “tunable materials” that will aid in the development of stem cell-based therapies.

He concluded,

“Given the growing demand for creating stimuli-responsive “smart” hydrogels, the direct assembly of stimuli-responsive proteins into hydrogels represents a versatile strategy for designing dynamically tunable materials.”

Stem Cell Stories that Caught Our Eye: perfecting pluripotency, building a spinal cord, and CIRM Board funds new clinical trials

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. 

Perfecting Pluripotency in stem cells.

The power of pluripotent stem cells lies in their ability to become any cell type in the body. But how did they get this impressive power?

Scientists from the University of Zurich in Switzerland think they might have an answer. In a study published in Nature Cell Biology, the team discovered that stem cells in the early stage embryo express a protein called Pramel7. This protein is like an eraser. Its presence ensures that a cell’s DNA is free of epigenetic marks, which are chemical tags that tell genes to switch on or off.

Embryonic stem cells have a blank slate meaning their genomes are free of epigenetic marks. This allows them to follow any developmental path and become any cell in the body. But as embryonic stem cells develop into more specialized adult cells, epigenetic marks called methyl groups are added to their genomes to effectively seal off genetic material containing genes that aren’t necessary to the fate of that cell.

The team found that Pramel7 was active in the stem cells of embryos that were only a few days old. Interestingly, when they studied embryonic stem cells grown in a petri dish outside of embryos, these stem cells didn’t express Pramel7 and consequently had more methyl marks on their DNA. These findings, which were captured in coverage by Phys.org, led the scientists to dub Pramel7 expressing embryonic stem cells as the “perfect allrounders.”

“Despite its short action period of just a few days, Pramel7 seems to play a vital role: When the researchers headed up by Cinelli and Santoro switched off the gene for this protein using genetic tricks, development remained stuck in the embryonic cell cluster stage. In the cultivated stem cells, on the other hand, Pramel7 is rarely found. This circumstance could also explain why the genetic material of these cells contains more methyl groups than that of natural embryonic cells.”

Just a few days old embryonic cell clusters: with functional Pramel7 (left), without the protein (right) – the development of the stem cells remains stuck and the embyos die. Credit: Paolo Cinelli, USZ

In future studies, the scientists will use their newly found knowledge about stem cell pluripotency to study how stem cells can regenerate bone fractures in patients. Before they can replace broken and damaged bones, they argue that “we have to know how stem cells work [first].”

CIRM Invests in Treatments for Stroke, Cancer and Blood Disorders.

Yesterday, the CIRM governing Board convened for our June ICOC meeting to consider the funding of stem cell research applications ranging from early, discovery stage studies to clinical trials.

Two new trials were added to our pipeline. SanBio was awarded $20 million to test a mesenchymal stem cell-based treatment for patients that have suffered from a stroke. UCSF received $12.1 million for a hematopoietic stem cell treatment for babies with a blood disorder called alpha thalassemia major. The stem cells are taken from the mother’s bone marrow and transplanted into the womb before the baby is born in hopes of improving the chances of a healthy birth.

The Board also approved 13 early stage research projects that are part of our Discovery Quest Awards Program, which promotes the discovery of promising new stem cell-based technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately improve patient care. You can read more about these studies in yesterday’s news release.

The Board meeting was particularly memorable one. A patient named Caleb Sizemore, who participated in the CIRM-funded Capricor trial for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, spoke to the Board about his experience in the trial and the importance of funding stem cell research for patients.

We also said an emotional goodbye to two important members of the CIRM team, President Randy Mills and General Counsel James Harrison. Randy will be the new President and CEO of the National Marrow Donor Program and James will be returning to his role as a partner at the law firm of Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, LLP.

We’ll be blogging more about the events of our Board meeting next week, so stay tuned!

CIRM President and CEO Dr. Randy Mills receives an award of appreciation and a CIRM plaque with his family.

Building a spinal cord comes down to location, location, location. (Todd Dubnicoff)

The spinal cord is an amazing part of our anatomy. Its long bundle of nerve cells acts like an elaborate highway starting from the brain, running down the spine and jutting out to countless “off-ramps” that make connections to our limbs and organs. These nerve cells are critical for bringing in sensory information from the body up to the brain and for sending out movement instructions from the brain down to our muscles. Assuming these cells aren’t equipped with their own GPS technology, how do they determine their precise location and turn into the right type of cell while building this information highway during embryo development?

A normal developing spinal cord (left) showing precise patterns of gene activity (red, blue, green demarcating different types of cells). In a spinal cord in which one of the signals is disrupted (right) the accuracy of gene activity has been lost. Image: Anna Kicheva

 

This week, a collaborative team of European scientists answered a large piece of that fundamental question. Reporting in Science, the researchers show evidence that progenitor, or early stage, nerve cells in developing mouse embryos sense the concentration of two proteins that spread out in opposite directions along the dorsal/ventral axis (from the belly to the back) of the body. Each progenitor nerve cell encounters a specific local concentration of these opposing protein gradients and then activates an appropriate set of genes in response.

Through some in-depth number crunching, the team showed that either gradient alone was not as precise in providing dorsal/ventral position information to cells compared to when both gradients are in place. They also showed that these gradients remained intact for the first 30 hours of development and then dissipated which indicates their importance in the earliest moments of life.

Anna Kicheva, the team lead for the research group the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria, explained the significance of these findings in a press release:

“We’ve made an important step in understanding how the diverse cell types in the spinal cord of a developing embryo are organized in a precise spatial pattern. The quantitative measurements and new experimental techniques we used, as well as the combined effort of biologists, physicists and engineers were key. This allowed us to gain new insight into the exquisite accuracy of embryonic development and revealed that cells have remarkable ability of to orchestrate precise tissue development.”

These new insights will not only provide a better understanding of how spinal cord development works but could also create new therapeutic approaches to diseases and injuries. James Briscoe, the senior author from the Francis Crick Institute in the United Kingdom, thinks these finding could also shed light on the development of other parts of the body:

“It’s likely that similar strategies are used in other developing tissues and our findings might be relevant to these cases. In the long run this will help inform the use of stem cells in approaches such as tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.”

Scientist grow diseased brain cells in bulk to study Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease

Daily trips to the local grocery store have become a thing of the past for many with the rise of wholesale stores like Costco and online giants like Amazon. Buying in bulk is attractive for people who lead busy lives, have large families, or just love having endless pairs of clean socks.

Scientists who study neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s use disease-in-a-dish models that are much like the daily visits to the nearby Safeway. They can make diseased brain cells, or neurons, from human pluripotent stem cells and study them in the lab. But often, they can’t generate large enough quantities of cells to do important experiments like test new drugs or develop diagnostic platforms to identify disease at an earlier age.

What scientists need is a Costco for brain cells, a source that can make diseased brain cells in bulk. Such a method would open a new avenue of research into what causes neurodegeneration and how the aging process affects its progression.

This week, this need was answered. A team of researchers from Lund University in Sweden developed a method that can efficiently generate neurons from patients with a range of neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The study was published in EMBO Molecular Medicine and was led by senior author Dr. Malin Parmar.

Diseased neurons made by the Lund University team. (Photo, Kennet Ruona)

Parmar and her team took an alternative approach to making their neurons. Their technology involves converting human skin cells into neurons without reprogramming the skin cells back to a pluripotent stem cell state first. This process is called “direct conversion” and is considered an effective shortcut for generating mature cells like neurons in a dish. Direct conversion of skin cells into neurons was first published by Dr. Marius Wernig, a CIRM-grantee and professor at Stanford University.

There is also scientific evidence suggesting that reprogramming patient cells back to a pluripotent state wipes out the effects of aging in those cells and has a Benjamin Button-like effect on the resulting neurons. By directly converting patient skin cells into neurons, many of these aging “signatures” are retained and the resulting neurons are more representative of the aging brain.

So how did they make brain cells in bulk? Parmar explained their method in a Lund University news release,

Malin Parmar

“Primarily, we inhibited a protein, REST, involved in establishing identity in cells that are not nerve cells. After limiting this protein’s impact in the cells during the conversion process, we’ve seen completely different results.”

 

Besides blocking REST, the team also turned on the production of two proteins, Ascl1 and Brn2, that are important for the development of neurons. This combination of activating pro-neural genes and silencing anti-neural genes was successful at converting skin cells into neurons on a large scale. Parmar further explained,

“We’ve been playing around with changing the dosage of the other components in the previous method, which also proved effective. Overall, the efficiency is remarkable. We can now generate almost unlimited amounts of neurons from one skin biopsy.”

As mentioned previously, this technology is valuable because it provides better brain disease models for scientists to study and to screen for new drugs that could treat or delay disease onset. Additionally, scientists can study the effects of the aging in the brain at different stages of neurodegeneration. Aging is a well-known risk factor for many neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer’s, so the ability to make large quantities of brain cells from elderly Alzheimer’s patients will unlock new clues into how age influences disease.

Co-author Dr. Johan Jakobsson concluded,

Johan Jakobsson

“This takes us one step closer to reality, as we can now look inside the human neurons and see what goes on inside the cell in these diseases. If all goes well, this could fundamentally change the field of research, as it helps us better understand the real mechanisms of the disease. We believe that many laboratories around the world would like to start testing on these cells to get closer to the diseases.”

For more on this study, check out this short video provided by Lund University.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: finding the perfect match, imaging stem cells and understanding gene activity

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. Enjoy!

LAPD officer in search of the perfect match.

LAPD Officer Matthew Medina with his wife, Angelee, and their daughters Sadie and Cassiah. (Family photo)

This week, the San Diego Union-Tribune featured a story that tugs at your heart strings about an LAPD officer in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant. Matthew Medina is a 40-year-old man who was diagnosed earlier this year with aplastic anemia, a rare disorder that prevents the bone marrow from producing enough blood cells and platelets. Patients with this disorder are prone to chronic fatigue and are at higher risk for infection and uncontrolled bleeding.

Matthew needs a bone marrow transplant to replace his diseased bone marrow with healthy marrow from a donor, but so far, he has yet to find a match. Part of the reason for this difficulty is the lack of diversity in the national bone marrow registry, which has over 25 million registered donors, the majority of which are white Americans of European decent. As a Filipino, Matthew has a 40% chance of finding a perfect match in the national registry compared to a 75% chance if he were white. An even more unsettling fact is that Filipinos make up less than 1% of donors on the national registry.

Matthew has a sister, but unfortunately, she wasn’t a match. For now, Matthew is being kept alive with blood transfusions at his home in Bellflower while he waits for good news. With the support of his family and friends, the hope is that he won’t have to wait for long. Already 1000 people in his local community have signed up to be bone marrow donors.

On a larger scale, organizations like A3M and Mixed Marrow are hoping to help patients like Matthew by increasing the diversity of the national bone marrow registry. A3M specifically recruits Asian donors while Mixed Match focuses on people with multi-ethnic backgrounds. Ayumi Nagata, a recruitment manager at A3M, said their main challenge is making healthy people realize the importance of being a bone marrow donor.

“They could be the cure for someone’s cancer or other disease and save their life. How often do we have that kind of opportunity?”

An algorithm that makes it easier to see stem cell development.

To understand how certain organs like the brain develop, scientists rely on advanced technologies that can track individual stem cells and monitor their fate as they mature into more specialized cells. Scientists can observe stem cell development with fluorescent proteins that light up when a stem cell expresses specific transcription factors that help decide the cell’s fate. Using a time-lapse microscope, these fluorescent stem cells can easily be identified and tracked throughout their lifetime.

But the pictures don’t always come out crystal clear. Just as a dirty camera lens makes for a dirty picture, images produced by time-lapse microscopy images can be plagued by shadows, artifacts and lighting inconsistencies, making it difficult to observe the orchestrated expression of transcription factors involved in a stem cell’s development.

This week in the journal Nature Communications, a team of scientists from Germany reported a solution that gives a clear view of stem cell development. The team developed a computer algorithm called BaSiC that acts like a filter and removes the background noise from time-lapse images of individual cells. Unlike previous algorithms, BaSiC requires fewer reference images to make its corrections.

The software BaSiC improves microscope images. (Credit: Tingying Peng / TUM/HMGU)

In coverage by Phys.org, author Dr. Tingying Peng explained the advantages of their algorithm,

“Contrary to other programs, BaSiC can correct changes in the background of time-lapse videos. This makes it a valuable tool for stem cell researchers who want to detect the appearance of specific transcription factors early on.”

The team proved that BaSiC is an effective image correcting tool by using it to study the development of hematopoietic or blood stem cells. They took time-lapse videos of blood stem cells over six days and observed that the stem cells chose between two developmental tracks that produced different types of mature blood cells. Using BaSiC, they found that blood stem cells that specialized into white blood cells expressed the transcription factor Pu.1 while the stem cells that specialized into red blood cells did not. Without the algorithm, they didn’t see this difference.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Nassir Navab, concluded by highlighting the importance of their technology and sharing his team’s vision for the future.

“Using BaSiC, we were able to make important decision factors visible that would otherwise have been drowned out by noise. The long-term goal of this research is to facilitate influencing the development of stem cells in a targeted manner, for example to cultivate new heart muscle cells for heat-attack patients. The novel possibilities for observation are bringing us a step closer to this goal.”

Silenced vs active genes: it’s like oil and water (Todd Dubicoff)

The DNA from just one of your cells would be an astounding six feet in length if stretched out end to end. To fit into a nucleus that is a mere 4/10,000th of an inch in diameter, DNA’s double helical structure is organized into intricate twists within twists with the help of proteins called histones.

Together the DNA and histones are called chromatin. And it turns out that chromatin isn’t just for stuffing all that genetic material into a tiny space. The amount of DNA folding also affects the regulation of genes. Areas of chromatin that are less densely packed are more accessible to DNA-binding proteins called transcription factors that activate gene activity. Other regions, called heterochromatin, are compacted which leads to silencing of genes because transcription factors are shut out.

But there’s a wrinkle in this story. More recently, scientists have shown that large proteins are able to wriggle their way into heterochromatin while smaller proteins cannot. So, there must be additional factors at play. This week, a CIRM-funded research project published in Nature provides a possible explanation.

Liquid-like fusion of heterochromatin protein 1a droplets is shown in the embryo of a fruit fly. (Credit: Amy Strom/Berkeley Lab)

Examining the nuclei of fruit fly embryos, a UC Berkeley research team report that various regions of heterochromatin coalesce into liquid droplets which physically separates them from regions where gene activity is high. This phenomenon, called phase-phase separation, is what causes oil droplets to fuse together when added to water. Lead author Dr. Amy Strom explained the novelty of this finding and its implications in a press release:

“We are excited about these findings because they explain a mystery that’s existed in the field for a decade. That is, if compaction [of chromatin] controls access to silenced [DNA] sequences, how are other large proteins still able to get in? Chromatin organization by phase separation means that proteins are targeted to one liquid or the other based not on size, but on other physical traits, like charge, flexibility, and interaction partners.”

Phase-phase separation can also affect other cell components, and problems with it have been linked to neurological disorders like dementia. In diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, proteins aggregate causing them to become more solid than liquid over time. Strom is excited about how phase-phase separation insights could lead to novel therapeutic strategies:

“If we can better understand what causes aggregation, and how to keep things more liquid, we might have a chance to combat these types of disease.”

Humacyte Receives Prestigious Technology Pioneer Award for Kidney Failure Treatment

This month, a CIRM-funded company called Humacyte was named one of the World Economic Forum’s 30 Technology Pioneers for 2017. This prestigious award “recognizes early-stage companies from around the world that are involved in the design, development and deployment of new technologies and innovations, and are poised to have a significant impact on business and society.”

Humacyte is a North Carolina-based company that’s developing a promising human-tissue based treatment for kidney failure. They’ve developed a technology to manufacture a bioengineered human vein that they hope will improve kidney function in patients with end stage kidney disease and patients on hemodialysis. We’ve blogged about their exciting technology previously on the Stem Cellar (here).

The technology is fascinating. The first step involves stimulating human smooth muscle cells from donor tissue to develop into tubular vessels. After the vessels are made, the cells are removed, leaving a 3D extracellular matrix structure composed of molecules secreted by the cells. This decellularized tube-like structure is called a human acellular vessels or HAV.

Human acellular vessel (HAV) from Humacyte.

The HAV is then implanted under a patient’s skin, where it recruits the patient’s own stem cells to migrate into the HAV and develop into vascular smooth muscle cells that line the insides of actual blood vessels. For patients with kidney failure, HAVs provide vascular access for hemodialysis, the process of collecting and filtering a patient’s blood through an artificial kidney and then returning “clean” blood back to the body. It would provide an alternative to the current procedures that insert a plastic tube called a shunt into the patient’s vein. Shunts can cause infection, blood clots, and can also be rejected by a patient’s immune system.

In July of 2016, CIRM awarded Humacyte almost $10 million to launch a Phase 3 trial in California to test their bioengineered blood vessels in patients with kidney failure. Since launching the trial, Humacyte received Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy or RMAT designation from the US Food and Drug Administration in March of this year. This designation is a sign that the FDA sees promise in Humacyte’s stem cell-based therapy and “will help facilitate the efficient development and expedited review of the HAV for vascular access to patients in need of life-sustaining hemodialysis.”

Humacyte’s technology has wide-ranging applications beyond treating kidney disease, including peripheral arterial disease, “repairing or replacing damaged arteries, coronary artery bypass surgery, and vascular trauma.” Other key benefits of this technology are that HAVs can be designed on demand and can be stored for later use without fear of a rapidly degrading shelf-life.

In a recent Humacyte news release, Carrie Cox, Chair and CEO of Humacyte, commented on her company’s purpose and vision to help patients.

“Keeping patient care at its core, Humacyte’s scientific discoveries are designed to create ‘off-the-shelf,’ or ready to use, bioengineered blood vessels. Today these conduits are being investigated clinically for patients undergoing kidney dialysis who require vascular access and for patients with peripheral arterial disease. However, this technology may be extended into a range of vascular applications in the future, with the potential for better clinical outcomes and lower healthcare costs. Our vision is to make a meaningful impact in healthcare by advancing innovation in regenerative medicine to produce life-sustaining improvements for patients with vascular disease.”

The potential impact that Humacyte’s technology could have for patients with unmet medical needs was compelling enough to earn the company a coveted spot in the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneer community. This recognition will likely foster new partnerships and collaborations to further advance Humacyte’s technology down the clinical pipeline. Fulvia Montresor, Head of Technology Pioneers at the World Economic Forum, concluded in a news release.

“We welcome Humacyte in this group of extraordinary pioneers. We hope that thanks to this selection, the World Economic Forum can facilitate greater collaboration with business leaders, governments, civil society and other relevant individuals to accelerate the development of technological solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.”

According to coverage by North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Humacyte and the other Technology Pioneers will be honored at the “Summer Davos” World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions later this month in China. You can learn more about this meeting here.


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School is out which means SPARK is in for the summer!

It’s mid-June, which means that school’s out for the summer! While most students are cheering about their newfound freedom from the classroom, a special group of high school students are cheering about the start of the CIRM SPARK internship program.

SPARK is CIRM’s high school educational program that gives students from underrepresented communities the opportunity to conduct stem cell research at top-notch universities in California. Students will spend the summer working in stem cell labs under the guidance and mentorship of scientists, PhDs, master’s students and postdocs. They will learn basic lab techniques like how to do PCR and how to grow stem cells.

Each student will have their own research project that answers an important question in the stem cell field. Students will also attend scientific lectures at their host university, participate in patient-centered activities and write blogs and social media posts about their experiences in the lab. At the end of the summer, they will show off their hard work through posters and talks at the annual SPARK conference.

SPARK gives students early exposure to research and proves to them that science is not only fun but is also a promising career option within their reach. We’ve offered a high school internship summer program for the past few years, and many students who’ve previously participated have told us that they are excited to pursue an education in science or medicine in college.

Ranya taking care of her stem cells!

I’ve featured some of these exciting success stories previously on our blog. One of these stellar students is Ranya Odeh. She was a student in the UC Davis SPARK program and recently told us that she will attend Stanford University to pursue bioengineering after receiving the prestigious QuestBridge scholarship. Another student we featured recently is Shannon Larsuel who participated in the Stanford SPARK program. Shannon was inspired after she worked at the Stanford bone marrow registry as part of her SPARK experience and now plans to be a pediatric oncologist.

Now that the 2017 SPARK program is in session, we can look forward to another exciting summer of talented and motivated students. Our SPARK students are encouraged to document their summer experiences on social media, so you’ll be able to follow their journeys on Instagram. Make sure to check out @CIRM_stemcells Instagram account and the #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag on both Instagram and Twitter.

If you’re a student or teacher who wants to learn more about the CIRM SPARK program, visit our website for more details. And with that, I’ll leave you with a few of the most recent Instagram posts from our new cohort of SPARK students!

Looking at our infected tissue cells!! 🔬🔬#CIRMSPARKLab

A post shared by monse mendoza (@mawnsay) on

Happy #workwednesday! I'm so excited that the @cirm_stemcells #cirmsparklab high school stem cell program has begun! It's a summer internship program where students from underrepresented communities do research in stem cell labs at universities in California. . These smiling students are part of the @uc_davis_stem_cells SPARK program led by Dr. Gerhard Bauer (left). To get into SPARK, they had to win the UC Davis #teenbiotechchallenge by creating a website about a specific science topic. . These students will spend two months doing stem cell research in a lab at UC Davis with grad student and postdoc mentors. At the end of the summer they will present their work at the CIRM spark conference. . I'm so excited for this year's new batch of students. They are posting pictures of their lab work on Instagram (see #cirmsparklab) and their enthusiasm for communicating their science is contagious. I'll be sharing more pictures from this program this summer! 👍🔬 . PS thanks to Dr. Jan Nolta from UC Davis for this photo and for her dedication to the SPARK program as a mentor and teacher!

A post shared by Dr. Karen Ring (@drkarenring) on