For years researchers have struggled to create human blood stem cells in the lab. They have done it several times with animal models, but the human kind? Well, that’s proved a bit trickier. Now a CIRM-funded team at UC San Diego (UCSD) think they have cracked the code. And that would be great news for anyone who may ever need a bone marrow transplant.
Why are blood stem cells important? Well, they help create our red and white blood cells and platelets, critical elements in carrying oxygen to all our organs and fighting infections. They have also become one of the most important weapons we have to combat deadly diseases like leukemia and lymphoma. Unfortunately, today we depend on finding a perfect or near-perfect match to make bone marrow transplants as safe and effective as possible and without a perfect match many patients miss out. That’s why this news is so exciting.
Researchers at UCSD found that the process of creating new blood stem cells depends on the action of three molecules, not two as was previously thought.
Here’s where it gets
a bit complicated but stick with me. The team worked with zebrafish, which use
the same method to create blood stem cells as people do but also have the
advantage of being translucent, so you can watch what’s going on inside them as
it happens. They noticed that a molecule
called Wnt9a touches down on a receptor called Fzd9b and brings along with it
something called the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). It’s the
interaction of these three together that turns a stem cell into a blood cell.
In a news release, Stephanie Grainger, the first author of the
study published in Nature Cell Biology, said this discovery could help lead to new
ways to grow the cells in the lab.
“Previous attempts to develop blood stem cells in a
laboratory dish have failed, and that may be in part because they didn’t take
the interaction between EGFR and Wnt into account.”
If this new approach helps the team generate blood stem cells in the lab these could be used to create off-the-shelf blood stem cells, instead of bone marrow transplants, to treat people battling leukemia and/or lymphoma.
It’s not often you read the word “sensational” in a news release about stem cells. But this week researchers at the University of Copenhagen released findings that are overturning long-held ideas about the development of cells in our stomachs. So perhaps calling it “sensational” is not too big a stretch.
In the past it was believed that the development of immature cells in our stomachs, before a baby is born, was predetermined, that the cells had some kind of innate sense of what they were going to become and when. Turns out that’s not the case. The researchers say it’s the cells’ environment that determines what they will become and that all cells in the fetus’ gut have the potential to turn into stem cells.
In the “sensational” news
release lead author, Kim Jensen, says this
finding could help in the development of new therapies.
“We used to believe that a cell’s
potential for becoming a stem cell was predetermined, but our new results show
that all immature cells have the same probability for becoming stem cells in
the fully developed organ. In principle, it is simply a matter of being in the
right place at the right time. Here signals from the cells’ surroundings
determine their fate. If we are able to identify the signals that are necessary
for the immature cell to develop into a stem cell, it will be easier for us to
manipulate cells in the wanted direction’.
It’s long been known that some lizards and other mammals can
regrow severed limbs, but it hasn’t been clear how. Now scientists at the
University of Cambridge in the UK have figured out what’s going on.
genomics the scientists were able to track which genes are turned on and
off at particular times, allowing them to watch what happens inside the tail of
the African clawed frog tadpole as it regenerates the damaged limb.
They found that the response was orchestrated by a group of
skin cells they called Regeneration-Organizing
Cells, or ROCs. Can Aztekin, one of the lead authors of the study in the
journal Science, says seeing how ROCs work could lead
to new ideas on how to stimulate similar regeneration in other mammals.
“It’s an astonishing process to
watch unfold. After tail amputation, ROCs migrate from the body to the wound
and secrete a cocktail of growth factors that coordinate the response of tissue
precursor cells. These cells then work together to regenerate a tail of the
right size, pattern and cell composition.”
Orphan Drug Designation for CIRM-funded
Poseida Therapeutics got some good news recently about their CIRM-funded therapy for multiple myeloma. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted them orphan drug designation.
drug designation is given to therapies targeting rare diseases or disorders
that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. It means the company may be
eligible for grant funding toward clinical trial costs, tax
advantages, FDA user-fee benefits and seven years of market
exclusivity in the United States following marketing approval by
is seeking to destroy these cancerous myeloma cells with an immunotherapy
approach that uses the patient’s own engineered immune system T cells to seek
and destroy the myeloma cells.”
CEO, Eric Ostertag, said the designation is an important milestone for the
company therapy which “has
demonstrated outstanding potency, with strikingly low rates of toxicity in our
phase 1 clinical trial. In fact, the FDA has approved fully outpatient dosing
in our Phase 2 trial starting in the second quarter of 2019.”
When a doctor gives you a medication you like to think that it’s safe, that it has been tested to make sure it will do you some good or, at the very least, won’t do you any harm. That’s particularly true when the patient is a pregnant woman. You hope the medication won’t harm her or her unborn child. Now scientists in Switzerland have found a new way to do that that is faster and easier than previous methods, and it uses cell cultures instead of animals.
Right now, drugs that are intended for use in pregnant women
have to undergo some pretty rigorous testing before they are approved. This
involves lots of tests in the lab, and then in animals such as rats and
rabbits. It’s time consuming, costly, and not always accurate because animals
never quite mimic what happens in people.
In the past researchers tested new
medications in the lab on so-called “embryoid bodies”. These are
three-dimensional clumps of cells developed from embryonic stem cells from mice.
The problem is that even when tested in this way the cells don’t always reflect
what happens to a medication as it passes through the body. For example, some
medications can seem fine on the surface but after they pass through the liver
can take on toxic qualities.
So, scientists at ETH Zurich in Basel,
Switzerland, developed a better way to test for toxicity.
They took a cell-culture chip and created several
compartments on it, in some they placed the embryoid bodies and in others they
put microtissue samples from human livers.
The different compartments were connected so that fluid flowed freely
from the embryoid bodies to the liver and vice versa.
In a news
release, Julia Boos, a lead author of the study, says this better reflects
what happens to a medication exposed to a human metabolism.
“We’re the first
to directly combine liver and embryonic cells in a body-on-a-chip approach. Metabolites
created by the liver cells – including metabolites that are stable for just a
few minutes – can thus act directly on the embryonic cells. In contrast to
tests on mice, in our test, the substances are metabolised by human liver cells
– in other words, just as they would be in the human body when the medication
To see if this
worked in practice the researchers tested their approach on the chemotherapy
drug cyclophosphamide, which is turned into a toxic substance after passing
through the liver.
results from testing cyclophosphamide with the new liver/embryoid body method
to the older method. They found the new approach was far more sensitive and
determined that a 400 percent lower concentration of cyclophosphamide was
enough to pose a toxic threat.
The team now hope to refine the test even further so it can
one day, hopefully, be applied to drug development on a large scale.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. It affects 10 million Americans. That’s more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. The causes of AMD are not known but are believed to involve a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors. There is no treatment for it.
Now, in a
CIRM-funded study, researchers at UC San Diego (UCSD) have used stem cells to
help identify genetic elements that could provide some clues as to the cause,
and maybe give some ideas on how to treat it.
Before we get into what the researchers did let’s take a look at what AMD does. At a basic level it attacks the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. The retina receives light, turns it into electrical signals and sends it to the brain which turns it into a visual image.
The disease destroys the macula, the part of the retina that controls our central vision. At first, sight becomes blurred or fuzzy but over time it progresses to the point where central vision is almost completely destroyed.
To try and
understand why this happens the team at UCSD took skin samples from six people
with AMD and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kinds of cell found in the retina. Because
these cells came from people who had AMD they now displayed the same
characteristics as AMD-affected retinal cells. This allowed the researchers to
create what is called a “disease-in-a-dish” model that allowed them to see, in
real time, what is happening in AMD.
They were able to
identify a genetic variant that reduces production of a protein called VEGFA,
which is known to promote the growth of new blood vessels.
In a news release Kelly Frazer, director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at UCSD and the lead author of the study, said the results were unexpected.
“We didn’t start with the VEGFA gene when we went looking for genetic causes of AMD. But we
were surprised to find that with samples from just six people, this genetic
variation clearly emerged as a causal factor.”
Frazer says this
discovery, published in the journal Stem
Cell Reports, could
ultimately lead to new approaches to developing new treatments for AMD.
A baby’s time in the womb is one of the most crucial periods in terms of its development. The average length of gestation, which is defined as the amount of time in the womb from conception to birth, is approximately 40 weeks. Unfortunately, for reasons not yet fully understood, there are times that babies are born prematurely, which can lead to problems.
These infants can have underdeveloped portions of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for advanced brain functions, including cognition, speech, and the processing of sensory and motor information. The brains of premature infants can be so underdeveloped that they are unable to control breathing. This, in combination with underdeveloped lungs, can lower oxygen levels in the blood, which can lead to hypoxic, or low oxygen related, brain injuries.
In a previous study, doctors Anca and Sergiu Pasca and their colleagues at Stanford developed a technique to create a 3D brain that mimics structural and functional aspects of the developing human brain.
Using this same technique, in a new study with the aid of CIRM funding, the team grew a 3D brain that contained cells and genes similar to the human brain midway through the gestational period. They then exposed this 3D brain to low oxygen levels for 48 hours, restored the oxygen level after this time period, and observed any changes.
It was found that progenitor cells in a region known as the subventricular zone, a region that is critical in the growth of the human cortex, are affected. Progenitor cells are “stem cell like” cells that give rise to mature brain cells such as neurons. They also found that the progenitor cells transitioned from “growth” mode to “survival” mode, causing them to turn into neurons sooner than normal, which leads to fewer neurons in the brain and underdevelopment.
“In the past 20 years, we’ve made a lot of progress in keeping extremely premature babies alive, but 70% to 80% of them have poor neurodevelopmental outcomes.”
The team then tested a small molecule to see if it could potentially reverse this response to low oxygen levels by keeping the progenitor cells in “growth” mode. The results of this are promising and Dr. Sergiu Pasca is quoted as saying,
“It’s exciting because our findings tell us that pharmacologically manipulating this pathway could interfere with hypoxic injury to the brain, and potentially help with preventing damage.”
The complete findings of this study were published in Nature.
When CIRM was created in 2004 the field of stem cell research was still very much in its infancy. Fast forward 15 years and it’s moving ahead at a rapid pace, probably faster than most scientists would have predicted. How fast? Find out for yourself at a free public event at UC San Diego on May 28th from 12.30 to 1.30p.
In the last 15 years CIRM has funded 53 clinical
trials in everything from heart disease and stroke, to spinal cord injury,
vision loss, sickle cell disease and HIV/AIDS.
Clearly progress is being made. But the field is also facing some challenges. Funding at the federal level for stem cell research is under threat, and CIRM is entering what could be its final phase. We have enough money left to fund new projects through this year (and these are multi-year projects so they will run into 2021 or 2022) but unless there is a new round of funding we will slowly disappear. And with us, may also disappear the hopes of some of the most promising projects underway.
If CIRM goes, then projects that we have supported and nurtured through different phases of research may struggle to make it into a clinical trial because they can’t get the necessary funding.
Clearly this is a pivotal time in the field.
We will discuss all this, the past, the present and the uncertain future of stem cell research at the meeting at UC San Diego on May 28th. The doors will open at noon for registration (snacks and light refreshments will also be available) and the program runs from 12.30p to 1.30p.
The speakers are:
Jamieson, Director of the UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic
and Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center.
Millan, President and CEO of CIRM
Higgins, CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease.
And of course, we want to hear from you, so we’ll leave
plenty of time for questions.
From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.
Over the years we
have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s
palsy and tissue
engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the
field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of
developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be
rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best
It’s not easy to do,
and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we
hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients
with unmet medical needs.
For example. This
past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.
The first event we
pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a
workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem
cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress
in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and
ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field”
and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us
it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to
advance the field.
Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients.
different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to
play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and
that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the
treatments and cures patients so desperately need.
As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.
Cierra said sickle
cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily
life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly
have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was
she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?
She talked about how
people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal
after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they
have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.
It was a powerful
reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the
whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.
And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.
CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.
The presentations at
these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations
that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great
collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or
when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical
It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.
Muscles are a vital part of the body that enable us to walk, run, lift, and do everyday activities. When muscles start to deteriorate, we start to have difficulty performing these activities, which severely limits quality of life and autonomy. Typically, this becomes more commonplace as we age and is known as sarcopenia, which affects nearly ten percent of adults over the age of 50 and nearly half of individuals in their 80s.
However, there are other instances where this happens much more rapidly and early on due to genetic disease. These are commonly known as muscular dystrophies, which consist of more than 30 genetic diseases characterized by progressive muscle weakness and degeneration. A cure does not currently exist.
Regardless of the cause of the muscle deterioration, scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys have uncovered how to potentially promote growth inside stem cells found within the muscle, thereby promoting muscle growth. In a mouse model study funded in part by CIRM and published in Nature Communications, Dr. Alessandra Sacco, senior author of the paper, and her team describe how a signaling pathway, along with a specific protein, can help regulate what muscle stem cells do.
Muscle stem cells can do two things, they either become adult muscle cells or self-renew to replenish the stem cell population. The paper discusses how the signaling pathway and specific protein are crucial for muscle stem cell differentiation and muscle growth, both of which are needed to prevent deterioration. Their aim is to use this knowledge to develop therapeutic targets that can aid with muscle growth.
Dr. Alessandra Sacco is quoted in an article as saying,
“Muscle stem cells can ‘burn out’ trying to regenerate tissue during the natural aging process or due to chronic muscle disease. We believe we have found promising drug targets that direct muscle stem cells to ‘make the right decision’ and stimulate muscle repair, potentially helping muscle tissue regeneration and maintaining tissue function in chronic conditions such as muscular dystrophy and aging.”
CIRM-funded research at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego is identifying compounds that could be used to help children battling a deadly brain cancer.
The cancer is choroid plexus carcinoma (CPC), a rare
brain tumor that occurs mainly in children. As it grows the tumor can affect
nearby parts of the brain resulting in nausea, vomiting and headaches.
Treatment involves surgery to remove the tumor followed
by chemotherapy and radiation. However, many of the children are too young to
undergo radiation and only around 40 percent are still alive five years after
being diagnosed. Even those who do survive often experience life-long
consequences such as developmental disabilities.
One obstacle to developing better therapies has been the
lack of a good animal model to enhance our understanding of the disease. That’s
where this later research, published in the journal Cancer Research, comes in.
The team at Sanford Burnham developed a new mouse model,
by knocking out p53, a gene known to suppress tumor formation, and activating a
gene called Myc, which is known to cause cancer.
In a news release, Robert Wechsler-Reya, the senior author of the paper, says this new model mirrors the way CPC grows and develops in humans.
“This model is a
valuable tool that will increase our understanding of the biology of the cancer
and allow us to identify and test novel approaches to therapy. This advance
brings us one step closer to a future where every child survives—and thrives—after
diagnosis with CPC.”
As proof of that
the team tested nearly 8,000 compounds against the mouse tumor cells, to see if
they could help stop or slow the progression of the disease. They identified
three that showed potential of not just stopping the cancer, but of also not
harming healthy surrounding cells.
“These compounds are promising, much-needed leads in the
quest for an effective CPC treatment,” says Wechsler-Reya. “Our laboratory
plans to evaluate these and additional compounds that can effectively treat
There are limitations to studying cells under a microscope. To understand some of the more complex processes, it is critical to see how these cells behave in an environment that is similar to conditions in the body. The production of organoids has revolutionized this approach.
Organoids are three-dimensional structures derived from stem cells that have similar characteristics of an actual organ. There have been several studies recently published that have used this approach to understand a wide scope of different areas.
In one such instance, researchers at The University of Cambridge were able to grow a “mini-brain” from human stem cells. To demonstrate that this organoid had functional capabilities similar to that of an actual brain, the researchers hooked it up to a mouse spinal cord and surrounding muscle. What they found was remarkable– the “mini-brain” sent electrial signals to the spinal cord that made the surrounding muscles twitch. This model could pave the way for studying neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Speaking of SMA, researchers in Singapore have used organoids to come up with some findings that might be able to help people battling the condition.
SMA is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a protein
deficiency that results in nerve degeneration, paralysis and even premature
death. The fact that it mainly affects children makes it even worse. Not much
is known how SMA develops and even less how to treat or prevent it.
That’s where the research from the A*STAR’s Institute of
Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) comes in. Using the iPSC method
they turned tissue samples from healthy people and people with SMA into spinal
They then compared the way the cells
developed in the organoids and found that the motor nerve cells from healthy
people were fully formed by day 35. However, the cells from people with SMA
started to degenerate before they got to that point.
They also found that the protein
problem that causes SMA to develop did so by causing the motor nerve cells to
divide, something they don’t normally do. So, by blocking the mechanism that
caused the cells to divide they were able to prevent the cells from dying.
“We are one of the first labs to report the formation of spinal organoids. Our study presents a new method for culturing human spinal-cord-like tissues that could be crucial for future research.”
Just yesterday the CIRM Board awarded almost $4 million to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics to try and develop a treatment for another debilitating back problem called degenerative spondylolisthesis.
And finally, organoid modeling was used to better understand and study an infectious disease. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin created fallopian tube organoids from normal human cells. Fallopian tubes are the pair of tubes found inside women along which the eggs travel from the ovaries to the uterus. The scientists observed the effects of chronic infections of Chlamydia, a sexually transmittable infection. It was discovered that chronic infections lead to permanent changes at the DNA level as the cells age. These changes to DNA are permanent even after the infection is cleared, and could be indicative of the increased risk of cervical cancer observed in women with Chlamydia or those that have contracted it in the past.