Stem cell stories that caught our eye: developing the nervous system, aging stem cells and identical twins not so identical

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

New theory for how the nervous system develops.

There’s a new theory on the block for how the nervous system is formed thanks to a study published yesterday by UCLA stem cell scientists in the journal Neuron.

The theory centers around axons, thin extensions projecting from nerve cells that transmit electrical signals to other cells in the body. In the developing nervous system, nerve cells extend axons into the brain and spinal cord and into our muscles (a process called innervation). Axons are guided to their final destinations by different chemicals that tell axons when to grow, when to not grow, and where to go.

Previously, scientists believed that one of these important chemical signals, a protein called netrin 1, exerted its influence over long distances in a gradient-like fashion from a structure in the developing nervous system called the floor plate. You can think of it like a like a cell phone tower where the signal is strongest the closer you are to the tower but you can still get some signal even when you’re miles away.

The UCLA team, led by senior author and UCLA professor Dr. Samantha Butler, questioned this theory because they knew that neural progenitor cells, which are the precursors to nerve cells, produce netrin1 in the developing spinal cord. They believed that the netrin1 secreted from these progenitor cells also played a role in guiding axon growth in a localized manner.

To test their hypothesis, they studied neural progenitor cells in the developing spines of mouse embryos. When they eliminated netrin1 from the neural progenitor cells, the axons went haywire and there was no rhyme or reason to their growth patterns.

Left: axons (green, pink, blue) form organized patterns in the normal developing mouse spinal cord. Right: removing netrin1 results in highly disorganized axon growth. (UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Neuron)

A UCLA press release explained what the scientists discovered next,

“They found that neural progenitors organize axon growth by producing a pathway of netrin1 that directs axons only in their local environment and not over long distances. This pathway of netrin1 acts as a sticky surface that encourages axon growth in the directions that form a normal, functioning nervous system.”

Like how ants leave chemical trails for other ants in their colony to follow, neural progenitor cells leave trails of netrin1 in the spinal cord to direct where axons go. The UCLA team believes they can leverage this newfound knowledge about netrin1 to make more effective treatments for patients with nerve damage or severed nerves.

In future studies, the team will tease apart the finer details of how netrin1 impacts axon growth and how it can be potentially translated into the clinic as a new therapeutic for patients. And from the sounds of it, they already have an idea in mind:

“One promising approach is to implant artificial nerve channels into a person with a nerve injury to give regenerating axons a conduit to grow through. Coating such nerve channels with netrin1 could further encourage axon regrowth.”

Age could be written in our stem cells.

The Harvard Gazette is running an interesting series on how Harvard scientists are tackling issues of aging with research. This week, their story focused on stem cells and how they’re partly to blame for aging in humans.

Stem cells are well known for their regenerative properties. Adult stem cells can rejuvenate tissues and organs as we age and in response to damage or injury. However, like most house hold appliances, adult stem cells lose their regenerative abilities or effectiveness over time.

Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, explained,

“We do think that stem cells are a key player in at least some of the manifestations of age. The hypothesis is that stem cell function deteriorates with age, driving events we know occur with aging, like our limited ability to fully repair or regenerate healthy tissue following injury.”

Harvard scientists have evidence suggesting that certain tissues, such as nerve cells in the brain, age sooner than others, and they trigger other tissues to start the aging process in a domino-like effect. Instead of treating each tissue individually, the scientists believe that targeting these early-onset tissues and the stem cells within them is a better anti-aging strategy.

David Sadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
(Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)

Dr. Scadden is particularly interested in studying adult stem cell populations in aging tissues and has found that “instead of armies of similarly plastic stem cells, it appears there is diversity within populations, with different stem cells having different capabilities.”

If you lose the stem cell that’s the best at regenerating, that tissue might age more rapidly.  Dr. Scadden compares it to a game of chess, “If we’re graced and happen to have a queen and couple of bishops, we’re doing OK. But if we are left with pawns, we may lose resilience as we age.”

The Harvard Gazette piece also touches on a changing mindset around the potential of stem cells. When stem cell research took off two decades ago, scientists believed stem cells would grow replacement organs. But those days are still far off. In the immediate future, the potential of stem cells seems to be in disease modeling and drug screening.

“Much of stem cell medicine is ultimately going to be ‘medicine,’” Scadden said. “Even here, we thought stem cells would provide mostly replacement parts.  I think that’s clearly changed very dramatically. Now we think of them as contributing to our ability to make disease models for drug discovery.”

I encourage you to read the full feature as I only mentioned a few of the highlights. It’s a nice overview of the current state of aging research and how stem cells play an important role in understanding the biology of aging and in developing treatments for diseases of aging.

Identical twins not so identical (Todd Dubnicoff)

Ever since Takahashi and Yamanaka showed that adult cells could be reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state, researchers have been wrestling with a key question: exactly how alike are these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to embryonic stem cells (ESCs)?

It’s an important question to settle because iPSCs have several advantages over ESCs. Unlike ESCs, iPSCs don’t require the destruction of an embryo so they’re mostly free from ethical concerns. And because they can be derived from a patient’s cells, if iPSC-derived cell therapies were given back to the same patient, they should be less likely to cause immune rejection. Despite these advantages, the fact that iPSCs are artificially generated by the forced activation of specific genes create lingering concerns that for treatments in humans, delivering iPSC-derived therapies may not be as safe as their ESC counterparts.

Careful comparisons of DNA between iPSCs and ESCs have shown that they are indeed differences in chemical tags found on specific spots on the cell’s DNA. These tags, called epigenetic (“epi”, meaning “in addition”) modifications can affect the activity of genes independent of the underlying genetic sequence. These variations in epigenetic tags also show up when you compare two different preparations, or cell lines, of iPSCs. So, it’s been difficult for researchers to tease out the source of these differences. Are these differences due to the small variations in DNA sequence that are naturally seen from one cell line to the other? Or is there some non-genetic reason for the differences in the iPSCs’ epigenetic modifications?

Marian and Vivian Brown, were San Francisco’s most famous identical twins. Photo: Christopher Michel

A recent CIRM-funded study by a Salk Institute team took a clever approach to tackle this question. They compared epigenetic modifications between iPSCs derived from three sets of identical twins. They still found several epigenetic variations between each set of twins. And since the twins have identical DNA sequences, the researchers could conclude that not all differences seen between iPSC cell lines are due to genetics. Athanasia Panopoulos, a co-first author on the Cell Stem Cell article, summed up the results in a press release:

“In the past, researchers had found lots of sites with variations in methylation status [specific term for the epigenetic tag], but it was hard to figure out which of those sites had variation due to genetics. Here, we could focus more specifically on the sites we know have nothing to do with genetics. The twins enabled us to ask questions we couldn’t ask before. You’re able to see what happens when you reprogram cells with identical genomes but divergent epigenomes, and figure out what is happening because of genetics, and what is happening due to other mechanisms.”

With these new insights in hand, the researchers will have a better handle on interpreting differences between individual iPSC cell lines as well as their differences with ESC cell lines. This knowledge will be important for understanding how these variations may affect the development of future iPSC-based cell therapies.

Live streaming genes in living cells coming to a computer near you!

Christmas has come early to scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. They’ve developed a technology that allows you to watch how individual genes move and interact in living cells. You can think of it as Facebook’s live streaming meets the adventurous Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus.

Using a gene editing system called CRISPR/Cas9, the team tagged genes of interest with fluorescent proteins that light up under a microscope – allowing them to watch in real time where these genes are in a cell’s nucleus and how they interact with other genes in the genome. This research, which was funded in part by a CIRM Research Leadership award, was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Watching genes in living cells

Traditional methods for observing the locations of genes within cells, such as fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), kill the cells – giving scientists only a snapshot of the complex interactions between genes. With this new technology, scientists can track genes in living cells and generate a 3D map of where genes are located within chromatin (the DNA/protein complex that makes up our chromosomes) during the different stages of a cell’s existence. They can also use these maps to understand changes in gene interactions caused by diseases like cancer.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Mazhar Adli, explained in a news release:

Mazhar Adli (Josh Barney, UVA Health System)

“This has been a dream for a long time. We are able to image basically any region in the genome that we want, in real time, in living cells. It works beautifully. With the traditional method, which is the gold standard, basically you will never be able to get this kind of data, because you have to kill the cells to get the imaging. But here we are doing it in live cells and in real time.”

Additionally, this new technique helps scientists conceptualize the position of genes in a 3D rather than in a linear fashion.

“We have two meters of DNA folded into a nucleus that is so tiny that 10,000 of them will fit onto the tip of a needle,” Adli explained. “We know that DNA is not linear but forms these loops, these large, three-dimensional loops. We want to basically image those kind of interactions and get an idea of how the genome is organized in three-dimensional space, because that’s functionally important.”

Not only can this CRISPR technology light up specific genes of interest, but it can also turn their activity on or off, allowing the scientists to observe the effects of one gene’s activity on others. The flexibility of this approach for visualizing genes in live cells is something that the research world currently lacks.

“We were told we would never be able to do this. There are some approaches that let you look at three-dimensional organization. But you do that experiment on hundreds of millions of cells, and you have to kill them to do it. Here, we can look at the single-cell level, and the cell is still alive, and we can take movies of what’s happening inside.”

This is a pretty nifty imaging tool for scientists that allows them to watch where genes are located and how they move as a cell develops and matures. Live-streaming the components of the genetic engine that keeps a cell running could also provide new insights into why certain genetic diseases occur and potentially open doors for developing better treatments.

Scientists tracked specific genomic locations in a living cell over time using their CRISPR/Cas9 technology. (Nature communications)

Could the Answer to Treating Parkinson’s Disease Come From Within the Brain?

Sometimes a solution to a disease doesn’t come in the form of a drug or a stem cell therapy, but from within ourselves.

Yesterday, scientists from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden reported an alternative strategy for treating Parkinson’s disease that involves reprogramming specific cells in the brain into the nerve cells killed off by the disease. Their method, which involves delivering reprogramming genes into brain cells called astrocytes, was able to alleviate motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease in mice.

What is Parkinson’s Disease and how is it treated?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that’s characterized by the death of dopamine-producing nerve cells (called dopaminergic neurons) in an area of the brain that controls movement.

Dopaminergic neurons grown in a culture dish. (Image courtesy of Faria Zafar, Parkinson’s Institute).

PD patients experience tremors in their hands, arms and legs, have trouble starting and stopping movement, struggle with maintaining balance and have issues with muscle stiffness. These troublesome symptoms are caused by a lack dopamine, a chemical made by dopaminergic neurons, which signals to the part of the brain that controls how a person initiates and coordinates movement.

Over 10 million people in the world are affected by PD and current therapies only treat the symptoms of the disease rather than prevent its progression. Many of these treatments involve drugs that replace the lost dopamine in the brain, but these drugs lose their effectiveness over time as the disease kills off more neurons, and they come with their own set of side effects.

Another strategy for treating Parkinson’s is replacing the lost dopaminergic neurons through cell-based therapies. However this research is still in its early stages and would require patients to undergo immunosuppressive therapy because the stem cell transplants would likely be allogeneic (from a donor) rather than autologous (from the same individual).

Drug and cell-based therapies both involve taking something outside the body and putting it in, hoping that it does the right thing and prevents the disease. But what about using what’s already inside the human body to fight off PD?

This brings us to today’s study where scientists reprogrammed brain cells in vivo (meaning inside a living organism) to produce dopamine in mice with symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s. Their method, which was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, was successful in alleviating some of the Parkinson’s-related movement problems the mice had. This study was funded in part by a CIRM grant and received a healthy amount of coverage in the media including STATnews, San Diego Union-Tribune and Scientific American.

Reprogramming the brain to make more dopamine

Since Shinya Yamanaka published his seminal paper on reprogramming adult somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, scientists have taken the building blocks of his technology a step further to reprogram one adult cell type into another. This process is called “direct reprogramming” or “transdifferentiation”. It involves delivering a specific cocktail of genes into cells that rewrite the cells identity, effectively turning them into the cell type desired.

The Karolinska team found that three genes: NEUROD1, ASCL1 and LMX1A combined with a microRNA miR218 were able to reprogram human astrocytes into induced dopaminergic neurons (iDANs) in a lab dish. These neurons looked and acted like the real thing and gave the scientists hope that this combination of factors could reprogram astrocytes into iDANs in the brain.

The next step was to test these factors in mice with Parkinson’s disease. These mice were treated with a drug that killed off their dopaminergic neurons giving them Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The team used viruses to deliver the reprogramming cocktail to astrocytes in the brain. After a few weeks, the scientists observed that some of the “infected” astrocytes developed into iDANs and these newly reprogrammed neurons functioned properly, and more importantly, helped reverse some of the motor symptoms observed in these mice.

This study offers a new potential way to treat Parkinson’s by reprogramming cells in the brain into the neurons that are lost to the disease. While this research is still in its infancy, the scientists plan to improve the safety of their technology so that it can eventually be tested in humans.

Bonus Blog Interview for World Parkinson’s Day

Ernest Arenas, Karolinska Institutet

In honor of World Parkinson’s day (April 11th), I’m providing a bonus blog interview about this research. I reached out to the senior author of this study, Dr. Ernest Arenas, to ask him a few more questions about his publication and the future studies his team is planning.

Q) What are the major findings of your current study and how do they advance research on Parkinson’s disease?

The current treatment for Parkinson’s disease (PD) is symptomatic and does not change the course of the disease. Cell replacement therapies, such as direct in vivo reprogramming of in situ [local] astrocytes into dopamine (DA) neurons, work by substituting the cells lost by disease and have the potential to halt or even reverse motor alterations in PD.

Q) Can you comment on the potential for gene therapy treatments for Parkinson’s patients?

We see direct in vivo reprogramming of brain astrocytes into dopamine neurons in situ as a possible future alternative to DA cell transplantation. This method represents a gene therapy approach to cell replacement since we use a virus to deliver four reprogramming factors. In this method, the donor cells are in the host brain and there is no need to search for donor cells and no cell transplantation or immunosuppression. The method for the moment is an experimental prototype and much more needs to be done in order to improve efficiency, safety and to translate it to humans.

Q) Will reprogrammed iDANs be susceptible to Parkinson’s disease over time?

As any other cell replacement therapy, the cells would be, in principle, susceptible to Parkinson’s disease. It has been found that PD catches up with transplanted cells in 15-20 years. We think that this is a sufficiently long therapeutic window.

In addition, direct in vivo reprogramming may also be performed with drug-inducible constructs that could be activated years after, as disease progresses. This might allow adding more cells by turning on the reprogramming factors with pharmacological treatment to the host. This was not tested in our study but the basic technology to develop such strategies currently exist.

Q) What are your plans for future studies and translating this research towards the clinic?

In our experiments, we used transgenic mice in order to test our approach and to ensure that we only reprogrammed astrocytes. There is a lot that still needs to be done in order to develop this approach as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. This includes improving the efficiency and the safety of the method, as well as developing a strategy suitable for therapy in humans. This can be achieved by further improving the reprogramming cocktail, by using a virus with a selective tropism [affinity] for astrocytes and that do not incorporate the constructs into the DNA of the host cell, as well as using constructs with astrocyte-specific promoters and capable of self-regulating depending on the cell context.

Our study demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to use direct reprogramming of host brain cells in order to rescue neurological symptoms. These results indicate that direct reprogramming has the potential to become a novel therapeutic approach for Parkinson’s disease and opens new opportunities for the treatment of patients with neurological disorders.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Plasticity in the pancreas and two cool stem cell tools added to the research toolbox

There’s more plasticity in the pancreas than we thought. You’re taught a lot of things about the world when you’re young. As you get older, you realize that not everything you’re told holds true and it’s your own responsibility to determine fact from fiction. This evolution in understanding happens in science too. Scientists do research that leads them to believe that biological processes happen a certain way, only to sometimes find, a few years later, that things are different or not exactly what they had originally thought.

There’s a great example of this in a study published this week in Cell Metabolism about the pancreas. Scientists from UC Davis found that the pancreas, which secretes a hormone called insulin that helps regulate the levels of sugar in your blood, has more “plasticity” than was originally believed. In this case, plasticity refers to the ability of a tissue or organ to regenerate itself by replacing lost or damaged cells.

The long-standing belief in this field was that the insulin producing cells, called beta cells, are replenished when beta cells actively divide to create more copies of themselves. In patients with type 1 diabetes, these cells are specifically targeted and killed off by the immune system. As a result, the beta cell population is dramatically reduced, and patients have to go on life-long insulin treatment.

UC Davis researchers have identified another type of insulin-producing cell in the islets, which appears to be an immature beta cell shown in red. (UC Davis)

But it turns out there is another cell type in the pancreas that is capable of making beta cells and they look like a teenage, less mature version of beta cells. The UC Davis team identified these cells in mice and in samples of human pancreas tissue. These cells hangout at the edges of structures called islets, which are clusters of beta cells within the pancreas. Upon further inspection, the scientists found that these immature beta cells can secrete insulin but cannot detect blood glucose like mature beta cells. They also found their point of origin: the immature beta cells developed from another type of pancreatic cell called the alpha cell.

Diagram of immature beta cells from Cell Metabolism.

In coverage by EurekAlert, Dr Andrew Rakeman, the director of discovery research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, commented on the importance of this study’s findings and how it could be translated into a new approach for treating type 1 diabetes patients:

“The concept of harnessing the plasticity in the islet to regenerate beta cells has emerged as an intriguing possibility in recent years. The work from Dr. Huising and his team is showing us not only the degree of plasticity in islet cells, but the paths these cells take when changing identity. Adding to that the observations that the same processes appear to be occurring in human islets raises the possibility that these mechanistic insights may be able to be turned into therapeutic approaches for treating diabetes.”

 

Say hello to iPSCORE, new and improved tools for stem cell research. Stem cells are powerful tools to model human disease and their power got a significant boost this week from a new study published in Stem Cell Reports, led by scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The team developed a collection of over 200 induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) lines derived from people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. They call this stem cell tool kit “iPSCORE”, which stands for iPSC Collection for Omic Research (omics refers to a field of study in biology ending in -omics, such as genomics or proteomics). The goal of iPSCORE is to identify particular genetic variants (unique differences in DNA sequence between people’s genomes) that are associated with specific diseases and to understand why they cause disease at the molecular level.

In an interview with Phys.org, lead scientist on the study, Dr. Kelly Frazer, further explained the power of iPSCORE:

“The iPSCORE collection contains 75 lines from people of non-European ancestry, including East Asian, South Asian, African American, Mexican American, and Multiracial. It includes multigenerational families and monozygotic twins. This collection will enable us to study how genetic variation influences traits, both at a molecular and physiological level, in appropriate human cell types, such as heart muscle cells. It will help researchers investigate not only common but also rare, and even family-specific variations.”

This research is a great example of scientists identifying a limitation in stem cell research and expanding the stem cell tool kit to model diseases in a diverse human population.

A false color scanning electron micrograph of cultured human neuron from induced pluripotent stem cell. Credit: Mark Ellisman and Thomas Deerinck, UC San Diego.

Stem cells that can grow into ANY type of tissue. Embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the body, earning them the classification of pluripotent. But there is one type of tissue that embryonic stem cells can’t make and it’s called extra-embryonic tissue. This tissue forms the supportive tissue like the placenta that allows an embryo to develop into a healthy baby in the womb.

Stem cells that can develop into both extra-embryonic and embryonic tissue are called totipotent, and they are extremely hard to isolate and study in the lab because scientists lack the methods to maintain them in their totipotent state. Having the ability to study these special stem cells will allow scientists to answer questions about early embryonic development and fertility issues in women.

Reporting this week in the journal Cell, scientists from the Salk Institute in San Diego and Peking University in China identified a cocktail of chemicals that can stabilize human stem cells in a totipotent state where they can give rise to either tissue type. They called these more primitive stem cells extended pluripotent stem cells or EPS cells.

Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Bemonte, co–senior author of the paper, explained the problem their study addressed and the solution it revealed in a Salk news release:

“During embryonic development, both the fertilized egg and its initial cells are considered totipotent, as they can give rise to all embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages. However, the capture of stem cells with such developmental potential in vitro has been a major challenge in stem cell biology. This is the first study reporting the derivation of a stable stem cell type that shows totipotent-like bi-developmental potential towards both embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages.”

Human EPS cells (green) can be detected in both the embryonic part (left) and extra-embryonic parts (placenta and yolk sac, right) of a mouse embryo. (Salk Institute)

Using this new method, the scientists discovered that human EPS stem cells were able to develop chimeric embryos with mouse stem cells more easily than regular embryonic stem cells. First author on the study, Jun Wu, explained why this ability is important:

“The superior chimeric competency of both human and mouse EPS cells is advantageous in applications such as the generation of transgenic animal models and the production of replacement organs. We are now testing to see whether human EPS cells are more efficient in chimeric contribution to pigs, whose organ size and physiology are closer to humans.”

The Salk team reported on advancements in generating interspecies chimeras earlier this year. In one study, they were able to grow rat organs – including the pancreas, heart and eyes – in a mouse. In another study, they grew human tissue in early-stage pig and cattle embryos with the goal of eventually developing ways to generate transplantable organs for humans. You can read more about their research in this Salk news release.

One scientist’s quest to understand autism using stem cells

April is National Autism Awareness Month and people and organizations around the world are raising awareness about a disorder that affects more than 20 million people globally. Autism affects early brain development and causes a wide spectrum of social, mental, physical and emotional symptoms that appear during childhood. Because the symptoms and their severity can vary extremely between people, scientists now use the classification of autism spectrum disorder (ASM).

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, we’re featuring an interview with a CIRM-funded scientist who is on the forefront of autism and ASD research. Dr. Alysson Muotri is a professor at UC San Diego and his lab is interested in unlocking the secrets to brain development by using molecular tools and stem cell models.

One of his main research projects is on autism. Scientists in his lab are using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from individuals with ASD to model the disease in a dish. From these stem cell models, his team is identifying genes that are associated with ASD and potential drugs that could be used to treat this disorder. Ultimately, Dr. Muotri’s goal is to pave a path for the development of personalized therapies for people with ASD.

I reached out to Dr. Muotri to ask for an update on his Autism research. His responses are below.

Q: Can you briefly summarize your lab’s work on Autism Spectrum Disorders?

AM: As a neuroscientist studying autism, I was frustrated with the lack of a good experimental model to understand autism. All the previous models (animal, postmortem brain tissues, etc.) have serious experimental limitations. The inaccessibility of the human brain has blocked the progress of research on ASD for a long time. Cellular reprogramming allows us to transform easy-access cell types (such as skin, blood, dental pulp, etc.) into brain cells or even “mini-brains” in the lab. Because we can capture the entire genome of the person, we can recapitulate early stages of neurodevelopment of that same individual. This is crucial to study neurodevelopment disorders, such as ASD, because of the strong genetic factor underlying the pathology [the cause of a disease]. By comparing “mini-brains” between an ASD and neurotypical [non-ASD] groups, we can find anatomical and functional differences that might explain the clinical symptoms.

Q: What types of tools and models are you using to study ASD?

AM: Most of my lab takes advantage of reprogramming stem cells and genome editing techniques to generate 3D organoid models of ASD. We use the stem cells to create brain organoids, also called “mini-brains” in the lab. These mini-brains will develop from single cells and grow and mature in the same way as the fetal brain. Thus, we can learn about their structure and connectivity over time.

A cross section of a cerebral organoid or mini-brain courtesy of Alysson Muotri.

This new model brings something novel to the table: the ability to experimentally test specific hypotheses in a human background.  For example, we can ask if a specific genetic variant is causal for an autistic individual. Thus, we can edit the genome of that autistic individual, fixing target mutations in these mini-brains and check if now the fixed mini-brains will develop any abnormalities seen in ASD.

The ability to combine all these recent technologies to create a human experimental model of ASD in the lab is quite new and very exciting. As with any other model, there are limitations. For example, the mini-brains don’t have all the complexity and cell types seen in the developing human embryo/fetus. We also don’t know exactly if we are giving them the right and necessary environment (nutrients, growth factors, etc.) to mature. Nonetheless, the progress in this field is taking off quickly and it is all very promising.

Two mini-brains grown in a culture dish send out cellular extensions to connect with each other. Neurons are in green and astrocytes are in pink. Image courtesy of Dr. Muotri.

Q: We’ve previously written about your lab’s work on the Tooth Fairy Project and how you identified the TRPC6 gene. Can you share updates on this project and any new insights?

AM: The Tooth Fairy Project was designed to collect dental pulp cells from ASD and control individuals in a non-invasive fashion (no need for skin biopsy or to draw blood). We used social media to connect with families and engage them in our research. It was so successful we have now hundreds of cells in the lab. We use this material to reprogram into stem cells and to sequence their DNA.

One of the first ASD participants had a mutation in one copy of the TRPC6 gene, a novel ASD gene candidate. Everybody has two copies of this gene in the genome, but because of the mutation, this autistic kid has only one functional copy. Using stem cells, we re-created cortical neurons from that individual and confirmed that this mutation inhibits the formation of excitatory synapses (connections required to propagate information).

Interestingly, while studying TRPC6, we realized that a molecule found in Saint John’s Wort, hyperforin, could stimulate the functional TRPC6. Since the individual still has one functional TRPC6 gene copy, it seemed reasonable to test if hyperforin treatment could compensate the mutation on the other copy. It did. A treatment with hyperforin for only two weeks could revert the deficits on the neurons derived from that autistic boy. More exciting is the fact that the family agreed to incorporate St. John’s Wort on his diet. We have anecdotal evidence that this actually improved his social and emotional skills.

To me, this is the first example of personalized treatment for ASD, starting with genome sequencing, detecting potential causative genetic mutations, performing cellular modeling in the lab, and moving into clinic. I believe that there are many other autistic cases where this approach could be used to find better treatments, even with off the counter medications. To me, that is the greatest insight.

Watch Dr. Muotri’s Spotlight presentation about the Tooth Fairy Project and his work on autism.

Q: Is any of the research you are currently doing in autism moving towards clinical trials?

AM: IGF-1, or insulin growth factor-1, a drug we found promising for Rett syndrome and a subgroup of idiopathic [meaning its causes are spontaneous or unknown] ASD is now in clinical trials. Moreover, we just concluded a CIRM award on a large drug screening for ASD. The data is very promising, with several candidates. We have 14 drugs in the pipeline, some are repurposed drugs (initially designed for cancer, but might work for ASD). It will require additional pre-clinical studies before we start clinical trials.

Q: What do you think the future of diagnosis and treatment will be for patients with ASD?

AM: I am a big enthusiastic fan of personalized treatments for ASD. While we continue to search for a treatment that could help a large fraction of ASD people, we also recognized that some cases might be easier than others depending on their genetic profile. The idea of using stem cells to create “brain avatars” of ASD individuals in the lab is very exciting. We are also studying the possibility of using this approach as a future diagnostic tool for ASD. I can imagine every baby having their “brain avatar” analyses done in the lab, eventually pointing out “red flags” on the ones that failed to achieve neurodevelopment milestones. If we could capture these cases, way before the autism symptoms onset, we could initiate early treatments and therapies, increasing the chances for a better prognostic and clinical trajectory. None of these would be possible without stem cell research.

Q: What other types of research is your lab doing?

Mini-brains grown in a dish in Dr. Muotri’s lab.

AM: My lab is also using these human mini-brains to test the impact of environmental factors in neurodevelopment. By exposing the mini-brains to certain agents, such as pollution particles, household chemicals, cosmetics or agrotoxic products [pesticides], we can measure the concentration that is likely to induce brain abnormalities (defects in neuronal migration, synaptogenesis, etc.). This toxicological test can complement or substitute for other commonly used analyses, such as animal models, that are not very humane or predictive of human biology. A nice example from my lab was when we used this approach to confirm the detrimental effect of the Zika virus on brain development. Not only did we show causation between the circulating Brazilian Zika virus and microcephaly [a birth defect that causes an abnormally small head], but our data also pointed towards a potential mechanism (we showed that the virus kills neural progenitor cells, reducing the thickness of the cortical layers in the brain).

You can learn more about Dr. Muotri’s research on his lab’s website.


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Telomere length matters: scientists find shorter telomeres may cause aging-related disease

Aging is inevitable no matter how much you exercise, sleep or eat healthy. There is no magic pill or supplement that can thwart growing older. However, preventing certain age-related diseases is a different story. Genetic mutations can raise the risk of acquiring age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. And scientists are on the hunt for treatments that target these mutations in hopes of preventing these diseases from happening.

Telomeres shown in white act as protective caps at the ends of chromosomes.

Another genetic component that can accelerate diseases of aging are telomeres. These are caps made up of repeat sequences of DNA that sit at the ends of chromosomes and prevent the loss of important genetic material housed within chromosomes. Healthy cells have long telomeres, and ascells divide these telomeres begin to shorten. If telomere shortening is left unchecked, cells become unhealthy and either stop growing or self-destruct.

Cells have machinery to regrow their telomeres, but in most cases, the machinery isn’t activated and over time, the resulting shortened telomeres can lead to problems like an impaired immune system and organ degeneration. Shortened telomeres are associated with age-related diseases, but the reasons why have remained elusive until recently.

Scientists from the Gladstone Institutes have found a clue to this telomere puzzle that they shared in a study published yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. This research was funded in part by a CIRM Discovery stage award.

In their study, the team found that mice with a mutation that causes a heart condition known as calcific aortic valve disease (CAVD) were more likely to get the disease if they had short telomeres. CAVD causes the heart valves and vessels to turn hard as rock due to a buildup of calcium. It’s the third leading cause of heart disease and the only effective treatment requires surgery to replace the calcified parts of the heart.

Old age and mutations in one of the copies of the NOTCH1 gene can cause CAVD in humans. However, attempts to model CAVD in mice using the same NOTCH1 mutation have failed to produce symptoms of the disease. The team at Gladstone knew that mice inherently have longer telomeres than humans and hypothesized that these longer telomeres could protect mice with the NOTCH1 mutation from getting CAVD.

They decided to study NOTCH1 mutant mice that had short telomeres and found that these mice had symptoms of CAVD including hardened arteries. Furthermore, mice that had the shortest telomeres had the most severe heart-related symptoms.

First author on the study Christina Theodoris, explained in a Gladstone news release how telomere length matters in animal models of age-related diseases:

“Our findings reveal a critical role for telomere length in a mouse model of age-dependent human disease. This model provides a unique opportunity to dissect the mechanisms by which telomeres affect age-dependent disease and also a system to test novel therapeutics for aortic valve disease.”

Deepak Srivastava and Christina Theodoris created mouse models of CAVD that may be used to test drug therapies for the disease. (Photo: Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes)

The team believes that there is a direct relationship between short telomeres and CAVD, likely through alterations in the activity of gene networks related to CAVD. They also propose that telomere length could influence how severe the symptoms of this disease manifest in humans.

This study is important to the field because it offers a new strategy to study age-related diseases in animal models. Senior author on the study, Dr. Deepak Srivastava, elaborated on this concept:

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

“Historically, we have had trouble modeling human diseases caused by mutation of just one copy of a gene in mice, which impedes research on complex conditions and limits our discovery of therapeutics. Progressive shortening of longer telomeres that are protective in mice not only reproduced the clinical disease caused by NOTCH1 mutation, it also recapitulated the spectrum of disease severity we see in humans.”

Going forward, the Gladstone team will use their new mouse model of CAVD to test drug candidates that have the potential to treat CAVD in humans. If you want to learn more about this study, watch this Gladstone video featuring an interview of Dr. Srivastava about this publication.

Don’t Be Afraid: High school stem cell researcher on inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students.

Shannon Larsuel

Shannon Larsuel is a high school senior at Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena California. Last summer, she participated in Stanford’s CIRM SPARK high school internship program and did stem cell research in a lab that studies leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Shannon is passionate about helping people through research and medicine and wants to become a pediatric oncologist. She is also dedicated to inspiring young girls to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers through a group called the Stem Sisterhood.

I spoke with Shannon to learn more about her involvement in the Stem Sisterhood and her experience in the CIRM SPARK program. Her interview is below.


Q: What is the Stem Sisterhood and how did you get involved?

SL: The Stem Sisterhood is a blog. But for me, it’s more than a blog. It’s a collective of women and scientists that are working to inspire other young scientists who are girls to get involved in the STEM field. I think it’s a wonderful idea because girls are underrepresented in STEM fields, and I think that this needs to change.

I got involved in the Stem Sisterhood because my friend Bridget Garrity is the founder. This past summer when I was at Stanford, I saw that she was doing research at Caltech. I reconnected with her and we started talking about our summer experiences working in labs. Then she asked me if I wanted to be involved in the Stem Sisterhood and be one of the faces on her website. She took an archival photo of Albert Einstein with a group of other scientists that’s on display at Caltech and recreated it with a bunch of young women who were involved in the STEM field. So I said yes to being in the photo, and I’m also in the midst of writing a blog post about my experience at Stanford in the SPARK program.

Members of The Stem Sisterhood

Q: What does the Stem Sisterhood do?

SL: Members of the team go to elementary schools and girl scout troop events and speak about science and STEM to the young girls. The goal is to inspire them to become interested in science and to teach them about different aspects of science that maybe are not that well known.

The Stem Sisterhood is based in Los Angeles. The founder Bridget wants to expand the group, but so far, she has only done local events because she is a senior in high school. The Stem Sisterhood has an Instagram account in addition to their blog. The blog is really interesting and features interviews with women who are in science and STEM careers.

Q: How has the Stem Sisterhood impacted your life?

SL: It has inspired me to reach out to younger girls more about science. It’s something that I am passionate about, and I’d like to pursue a career in the medical field. This group has given me an outlet to share that passion with others and to hopefully change the face of the STEM world.

Q: How did you find out about the CIRM SPARK program?

SL: I knew I wanted to do a science program over the summer, but I wasn’t sure what type. I didn’t know if I wanted to do research or be in a hospital. I googled science programs for high school seniors, and I saw the one at Stanford University. It looked interesting and Stanford is obviously a great institution. Coming from LA, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get in because the program had said it was mostly directed towards students living in the Bay Area. But I got in and I was thrilled. So that’s basically how I heard about it, because I googled and found it.

Q: What was your SPARK experience like?

SL: My program was incredible. I was a little bit nervous and scared going into it because I was the only high school student in my lab. As a high school junior going into senior year, I was worried about being the youngest, and I knew the least about the material that everyone in the lab was researching. But my fears were quickly put aside when I got to the lab. Everyone was kind and helpful, and they were always willing to answer my questions. Overall it was really amazing to have my first lab experience be at Stanford doing research that’s going to potentially change the world.

Shannon working in the lab at Stanford.

I was in a lab that was using stem cells to characterize a type of leukemia. The lab is hoping to study leukemia in vitro and in vivo and potentially create different treatments and cures from this research. It was so cool knowing that I was doing research that was potentially helping to save lives. I also learned how to work with stem cells which was really exciting. Stem cells are a new advancement in the science world, so being able to work with them was incredible to me. So many students will never have that opportunity, and being only 17 at the time, it was amazing that I was working with actual stem cells.

I also liked that the Stanford SPARK program allowed me to see other aspects of the medical world. We did outreach programs in the Stanford community and helped out at the blood drive where we recruited people for the bone marrow registry. I never really knew anything about the registry, but after learning about it, it really interested me. I actually signed up for it when I turned 18. We also met with patients and their families and heard their stories about how stem cell transplants changed their lives. That was so inspiring to me.

Going into the program, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist, but after the program, I knew for sure that’s what I wanted to do. I never thought about the research side of pediatric oncology, I only thought about the treatment of patients. So the SPARK program showed me what laboratory research is like, and now that’s something I want to incorporate into my career as a pediatric oncologist.

I learned so much in such a short time period. Through SPARK, I was also able to connect with so many incredible, inspired young people. The students in my program and I still have a group chat, and we text each other about college and what’s new with our lives. It’s nice knowing that there are so many great people out there who share my interests and who are going to change the world.

Stanford SPARK students.

Q: What was your favorite part of the SPARK program?

SL: Being in the lab every day was really incredible to me. It was my first research experience and I was in charge of a semi-independent project where I would do bacterial transformations on my own and run the gels. It was cool that I could do these experiments on my own. I also really loved the end of the summer poster session where all the students from the different SPARK programs came together to present their research. Being in the Stanford program, I only knew the Stanford students, but there were so many other awesome projects that the other SPARK students were doing. I really enjoyed being able to connect with those students as well and learn about their projects.

Q: Why do you want to pursue pediatric oncology?

SL: I’ve always been interested in the medical field but I’ve had a couple of experiences that really inspired me to become a doctor. My friend has a charity that raises money for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Every year, we deliver toys to the hospital. The first year I participated, we went to the hospital’s oncology unit and something about it stuck with me. There was one little boy who was getting his chemotherapy treatment. He was probably two years old and he really inspired to create more effective treatments for him and other children.

I also participated in the STEAM Inquiry program at my high school, where I spent two years reading tons of peer reviewed research on immunotherapy for pediatric cancer. Immunotherapy is something that really interests me. It makes sense that since cancer is usually caused by your body’s own mutations, we should be able to use the body’s immune system that normally regulates this to try and cure cancer. This program really inspired me to go into this field to learn more about how we can really tailor the immune system to fight cancer.

Q: What advice do you have for young girls interested in STEM.

SL: My advice is don’t be afraid. I think that sometimes girls are expected to be interested in less intellectual careers. This perception can strike fear into girls and make them think “I won’t be good enough. I’m not smart enough for this.” This kind of thinking is not good at all. So I would say don’t be afraid and be willing to put yourself out there. I know for me, sometimes it’s scary to try something and know you could fail. But that’s the best way to learn. Girls need to know that they are capable of doing anything and if they just try, they will be surprised with what they can do.

Stem cells reveal developmental defects in Huntington’s disease

Three letters, C-A-G, can make the difference between being healthy and having a genetic brain disorder called Huntington’s disease (HD). HD is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects movement, cognition and personality. Currently more than 30,000 Americans have HD and there is no cure or treatment to stop the disease from progressing.

A genetic mutation in the huntingtin gene. caused by an expanded repeat of CAG nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA that make our genes, is responsible for causing HD. Normal people have less than 26 CAG repeats while those with 40 or more repeats will get HD. The reasons are still unknown why this trinucleotide expansion causes the disease, but scientists hypothesize that the extra CAG copies in the huntingtin gene produce a mutant version of the Huntingtin protein, one that doesn’t function the way the normal protein should.

The HD mutation causes neurodegeneration.

As with many diseases, things start to go wrong in the body long before symptoms of the disease reveal themselves. This is the case for HD, where symptoms typically manifest in patients between the ages of 30 and 50 but problems at the molecular and cellular level occur decades before. Because of this, scientists are generating new models of HD to unravel the mechanisms that cause this disease early on in development.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from HD patients with expanded CAG repeats are an example of a cell-based model that scientists are using to understand how HD affects brain development. In a CIRM-funded study published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists from the HD iPSC Consortium used HD iPSCs to study how the HD mutation causes problems with neurodevelopment.

They analyzed neural cells made from HD patient iPSCs and looked at what genes displayed abnormal activity compared to healthy neural cells. Using a technique called RNA-seq analysis, they found that many of these “altered” genes in HD cells played important roles in the development and maturation of neurons, the nerve cells in the brain. They also observed differences in the structure of HD neurons compared to healthy neurons when grown in a lab. These findings suggest that HD patients likely have problems with neurodevelopment and adult neurogenesis, the process where the adult stem cells in your brain generate new neurons and other brain cells.

After pinpointing the gene networks that were altered in HD neurons, they identified a small molecule drug called isoxazole-9 (Isx-9) that specifically targets these networks and rescues some of the HD-related symptoms they observed in these neurons. They also tested Isx-9 in a mouse model of HD and found that the drug improved their cognition and other symptoms related to impaired neurogenesis.

The authors conclude from their findings that the HD mutation disrupts gene networks that affect neurodevelopment and neurogenesis. These networks can be targeted by Isx-9, which rescues HD symptoms and improves the mental capacity of HD mice, suggesting that future treatments for HD should focus on targeting these early stage events.

I reached out to the leading authors of this study to gain more insights into their work. Below is a short interview with Dr. Leslie Thompson from UC Irvine, Dr. Clive Svendsen from Cedars-Sinai, and Dr. Steven Finkbeiner from the Gladstone Institutes. The responses were mutually contributed.

Leslie Thompson

Steven Finkbeiner

Clive Svendsen

 

 

 

 

 

 Q: What is the mission of the HD iPSC Consortium?

To create a resource for the HD community of HD derived stem cell lines as well as tackling problems that would be difficult to do by any lab on its own.  Through the diverse expertise represented by the consortium members, we have been able to carry out deep and broad analyses of HD-associated phenotypes [observable characteristics derived from your genome].  The authorship of the paper  – the HD iPSC consortium (and of the previous consortium paper in 2012) – reflects this goal of enabling a consortium and giving recognition to the individuals who are part of it.

Q: What is the significance of the findings in your study and what novel insights does it bring to the HD field?

 Our data revealed a surprising neurodevelopmental effect of highly expanded repeats on the HD neural cells.  A third of the changes reflected changes in networks that regulate development and maturation of neurons and when compared to neurodevelopment pathways in mice, showed that maturation appeared to be impacted.  We think that the significance is that there may be very early changes in HD brain that may contribute to later vulnerability of the brain due to the HD mutation.  This is compounded by the inability to mount normal adult neurogenesis or formation of new neurons which could compensate for the effects of mutant HTT.  The genetic mutation is present from birth and with differentiated iPSCs, we are picking up signals earlier than we expected that may reflect alterations that create increased susceptibility or limited homeostatic reserves, so with the passage of time, symptoms do result.

What we find encouraging is that using a small molecule that targets the pathways that came out of the analysis, we protected against the impact of the HD mutation, even after differentiation of the cells or in an adult mouse that had had the mutation present throughout its development.

Q: There’s a lot of evidence suggesting defects in neurodevelopment and neurogenesis cause HD. How does your study add to this idea?

Agree completely that there are a number of cell, mouse and human studies that suggest that there are problems with neurodevelopment and neurogenesis in HD.  Our study adds to this by defining some of the specific networks that may be regulating these effects so that drugs can be developed around them.  Isx9, which was used to target these pathways specifically, shows that even with these early changes, one can potentially alleviate the effects. In many of the assays, the cells were already through the early neurodevelopmental stages and therefore would have the deficits present.  But they could still be rescued.

Q: Has Isx-9 been used previously in cell or animal models of HD or other neurodegenerative diseases? Could it help HD patients who already are symptomatic?

The compound has not been used that we know of in animal models to treat neurodegeneration, although was shown to affect neurogenesis and memory in mice. Isx9 was used in a study by Stuart Lipton in Parkinson’s iPSC-derived neurons in one study and it had a protective effect on apoptosis [cell death] in a study by Ryan SD et al., 2013, Cell.

We think this type of compound could help patients who are symptomatic.  Isx-9 itself is a fairly pleiotropic drug [having multiple effects] and more research would be needed [to test its safety and efficacy].

Q: Have you treated HD mice with Isx-9 during early development to see whether the molecule improves HD symptoms?

Not yet, but we would like to.

Q: What are your next steps following this study and do you have plans to translate this research into humans?

We are following up on the research in more mature HD neurons and to determine at what stages one can rescue the HD phenotypes in mice.  Also, we would need to do pharmacodynamics and other types of assays in preclinical models to assess efficacy and then could envision going into human trials with a better characterized drug.  Our goal is to ultimately translate this to human treatments in general and specifically by targeting these altered pathways.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: stem cell insights into anorexia, Zika infection and bubble baby disease

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are often thought to be caused by psychological disturbances or societal pressure. However, research into the genes of anorexia patients suggests that what’s written in your DNA can be associated with an increased vulnerability to having this disorder. But identifying individual genes at fault for a disease this complex has remained mostly out of scientists’ reach, until now.

A CIRM-funded team from the UC San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine reported this week that they’ve developed a stem cell-based model of anorexia and used it to identify a gene called TACR1, which they believe is associated with an increased likelihood of getting anorexia.

They took skin samples from female patients with anorexia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells contained the genetic information potentially responsible for causing their anorexia. The team matured these iPSCs into brain cells, called neurons, in a dish, and then studied what genes got activated. When they looked at the genes activated by anorexia neurons, they found that TACR1, a gene associated with psychiatric disorders, was switched on higher in anorexia neurons than in healthy neurons. These findings suggest that the TACR1 gene could be an identifier for this disease and a potential target for developing new treatments.

In a UCSD press release, Professor and author on the study, Alysson Muotri, said that they will follow up on their findings by studying stem cell lines derived from a larger group of patients.

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

“But more to the point, this work helps make that possible. It’s a novel technological advance in the field of eating disorders, which impacts millions of people. These findings transform our ability to study how genetic variations alter brain molecular pathways and cellular networks to change risk of anorexia nervosa — and perhaps our ability to create new therapies.”

Anorexia is a disease that affects 1% of the global population and although therapy can be an effective treatment for some, many do not make a full recovery. Stem cell-based models could prove to be a new method for unlocking new clues into what causes anorexia and what can cure it.

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

Zika virus is no longer dominating the news headlines these days compared to 2015 when large outbreaks of the virus in the Southern hemisphere came to a head. However, the threat of Zika-induced birth defects, like microcephaly to pregnant women and their unborn children is no less real or serious two years later. There are still no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs that prevent Zika infection but scientists are working fast to meet this unmet need.

Speaking of which, scientists at UCLA think they might have a new weapon in the war against Zika. Back in 2013, they reported that a natural compound in the body called 25HC was effective at attacking viruses and prevented human cells from being infected by viruses like HIV, Ebola and Hepatitis C.

When the Zika outbreak hit, they thought that this compound could potentially be effective at preventing Zika infection as well. In their new study published in the journal Immunity, they tested a synthetic version of 25HC in animal and primate models, they found that it protected against infection. They also tested the compound on human brain organoids, or mini brains in a dish made from pluripotent stem cells. Brain organoids are typically susceptible to Zika infection, which causes substantial cell damage, but this was prevented by treatment with 25HC.

Left to right: (1) Zika virus (green) infects and destroys the formation of neurons (pink) in human stem cell-derived brain organoids.  (2) 25HC blocks Zika infection and preserves neuron formation in the organoids. (3) Reduced brain size and structure in a Zika-infected mouse brain. (4) 25HC preserves mouse brain size and structure. Image courtesy of UCLA Stem Cell.

A UCLA news release summarized the impact that this research could have on the prevention of Zika infection,

“The new research highlights the potential use of 25HC to combat Zika virus infection and prevent its devastating outcomes, such as microcephaly. The research team will further study whether 25HC can be modified to be even more effective against Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.”

Harnessing a naturally made weapon already found in the human body to fight Zika could be an alternative strategy to preventing Zika infection.

Gene therapy in stem cells gives hope to bubble-babies.

Last week, an inspiring and touching story was reported by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle. She featured Ja’Ceon Golden, a young baby not even 6 months old, who was born into a life of isolation because he lacked a properly functioning immune system. Ja’Ceon had a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as bubble-baby disease.

 

Ja’Ceon Golden is treated by patient care assistant Grace Deng (center) and pediatric oncology nurse Kat Wienskowski. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle.

Babies with SCID lack the body’s immune defenses against infectious diseases and are forced to live in a sterile environment. Without early treatment, SCID babies often die within one year due to recurring infections. Bone marrow transplantation is the most common treatment for SCID, but it’s only effective if the patient has a donor that is a perfect genetic match, which is only possible for about one out of five babies with this disease.

Advances in gene therapy are giving SCID babies like Ja’Ceon hope for safer, more effective cures. The SF Chronicle piece highlights two CIRM-funded clinical trials for SCID run by UCLA in collaboration with UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In these trials, scientists isolate the bone marrow stem cells from SCID babies, correct the genetic mutation causing SCID in their stem cells, and then transplant them back into the patient to give them a healthy new immune system.

The initial results from these clinical trials are promising and support other findings that gene therapy could be an effective treatment for certain genetic diseases. CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Sohel Talib, was quoted in the Chronicle piece saying,

“Gene therapy has been shown to work, the efficacy has been shown. And it’s safe. The confidence has come. Now we have to follow it up.”

Ja’Ceon was the first baby treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and so far, he is responding well to the treatment. His great aunt Dannie Hawkins said that it was initially hard for her to enroll Ja’Ceon in this trial because she was a partial genetic match and had the option of donating her own bone-marrow to help save his life. In the end, she decided that his involvement in the trial would “open the door for other kids” to receive this treatment if it worked.

Ja’Ceon Golden plays with patient care assistant Grace Deng in a sterile play area at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle

It’s brave patients and family members like Ja’Ceon and Dannie that make it possible for research to advance from clinical trials into effective treatments for future patients. We at CIRM are eternally grateful for their strength and the sacrifices they make to participate in these trials.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Three new ways to target cancer stem cells

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Targeting cancer stem cells. This week, three studies came out with novel ways for targeting cancer stem cells in different types of cancers. Here’s a brief run-down of this trifecta of cancer stem cell-crushing stories:

Take your vitamins! Scientists in the UK were experimenting on cancer stem cells and comparing natural substances to on-the-market cancer drugs to determine whether any of the natural substances were effective at disrupting the metabolism (the chemical reactions that keep cells alive and functioning) of cancer stem cells. Interestingly, they found that ascorbic acid, which you’ll know as Vitamin C, was ten times better at curbing cancer stem cell growth compared to a cancer drug called 2-DG.

Vitamin C has popped up as an anti-cancer treatment in the past when Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling found that it dramatically reduced the death rate in breast cancer patients. However this current study is the first to show that Vitamin C has a direct effect on cancer stem cells.

In coverage by ScienceDaily, the UK team hinted at plans to test Vitamin C in clinical trials:

“Vitamin C is cheap, natural, non-toxic and readily available so to have it as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer would be a significant step. Our results indicate it is a promising agent for clinical trials, and a as an add-on to more conventional therapies, to prevent tumour recurrence, further disease progression and metastasis.”

 

A gene called ZEB1 determines how aggressive brain tumors are. A team from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was interested to know how cancer stem cells in aggressive brain tumors called gliomas survive, reproduce and affect patient survival. In a study published in Scientific Reports, they studied the genetic information of over 4000 brain tumor samples and found ZEB1, a gene that regulates tumor growth and is associated with patient survival.

They found that patients with a healthy copy of the ZEB1 gene had a higher survival rate and less aggressive tumors compared to patients that didn’t have ZEB1 or had a mutated version of the gene.

In coverage by ScienceDaily, the senior author on the study explained how their study’s findings will allow for more personalized treatments for patients with glioma based on whether they have ZEB1 or not:

“Patients without the gene in their tumors have more aggressive cancers that act like stem cells by developing into an uncontrollable number of cell types. This new information could help us to measure the mutation in these patients so that we are able to provide a more accurate prognosis and treatment plan.”

 

Beating resistant tumors by squashing cancer stem cells. Our final cancer stem cell story today comes from the UCLA School of Dentistry. This team is studying another type of aggressive cancer called a squamous cell carcinoma that causes tumors in the head and neck. Often these tumors resist treatment and spread to a patient’s lymph nodes, which quickly reduces their survival rate.

The UCLA team thought that maybe pesky cancer stem cells were to blame for the aggressive and resistant nature of these head and neck tumors. In a study published in Cell Stem Cell, they developed a mouse model of head and neck carcinoma and isolated cancer stem cells from the tumors of these mice. When they studied these stem cells, they found that they expressed unique proteins compared to non-cancer cells. These included Bmi1, a well-known stem cell protein, and AP-1, a transcription factor protein that regulates other cancer genes.

At left, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma invasive growth, and at right, cancer stem cells (shown in red) in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. (Image Demeng Chen and Cun-Yu Wang/UCLA)

After identifying the culprits, the team developed a new combination strategy that targeted the cancer stem cells while also killing off the tumors using chemotherapy drugs.

In a UCLA Newsroom press release, the lead scientist on the study Dr. Cun-Yu Wang explained the importance of their study for the future treatment of cancer and solid tumors:

“This study shows that for the first time, targeting the proliferating tumor mass and dormant cancer stem cells with combination therapy effectively inhibited tumor growth and prevented metastasis compared to monotherapy in mice. Our discovery could be applied to other solid tumors such as breast and colon cancer, which also frequently metastasizes to lymph nodes or distant organs.”