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 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.

Could revving up stem cells help senior citizens heal as fast as high school seniors?

All physicians, especially surgeons, sport medicine doctors, and military medical corps share a similar wish: to able to speed up the healing process for their patients’ incisions and injuries. Data published this week in Cell Reports may one day fulfill that wish. The study – reported by a Stanford University research team – pinpoints a single protein that revs up stem cells in the body, enabling them to repair tissue at a quicker rate.

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 5.37.38 PM

Muscle fibers (dark areas surrounding by green circles) are larger in mice injected with HGFA protein (right panel) compared to untreated mice (left panel), an indication of faster healing after muscle injury.
(Image: Cell Reports 19 (3) p. 479-486, fig 3C)

Most of the time, adult stem cells in the body keep to themselves and rarely divide. This calmness helps preserve this important, small pool of cells and avoids unnecessary mutations that may happen whenever DNA is copied during cell division.

To respond to injury, stem cells must be primed by dividing one time, which is a very slow process and can take several days. Once in this “alert” state, the stem cells are poised to start dividing much faster and help repair damaged tissue. The Stanford team, led by Dr. Thomas Rando, aimed to track down the signals that are responsible for this priming process with the hope of developing drugs that could help jump-start the healing process.

Super healing serum: it’s not just in video games
The team collected blood serum from mice two days after the animals had been subjected to a muscle injury (the mice were placed under anesthesia during the procedure and given pain medication afterwards). When that “injured” blood was injected into a different set of mice, their muscle stem cells became primed much faster than mice injected with “uninjured” blood.

“Clearly, blood from the injured animal contains a factor that alerts the stem cells,” said Rando in a press release. “We wanted to know, what is it in the blood that is doing this?”

 

A deeper examination of the priming process zeroed in on a muscle stem cell signal that is turned on by a protein in the blood called hepatocyte growth factor (HGF). So, it seemed likely that HGF was the protein that they had been looking for. But, to their surprise, there were no differences in the amount of HGF found in blood from injured and uninjured mice.

HGFA: the holy grail of healing?
It turns out, though, that HGF must first be chopped in two by an enzyme called HGFA to become active. When the team went back and examined the injured and uninjured blood, they found that it was HGFA which showed a difference: it was more active in the injured blood.

To show that HGFA was directly involved in stimulating tissue repair, the team injected mice with the enzyme two days before the muscle injury procedure. Twenty days post injury, the mice injected with HGFA had regenerated larger muscle fibers compared to untreated mice. Even more telling, nine days after the HGFA treatment, the mice had better recovery in terms of their wheel running activity compared to untreated mice.

To mimic tissue repair after a surgery incision, the team also looked at the impact of HGFA on skin wound healing. Like the muscle injury results, injecting animals with HGFA two days before creating a skin injury led to better wound healing compared to untreated mice. Even the hair that had been shaved at the surgical site grew back faster. First author Dr. Joseph Rodgers, now at USC, summed up the clinical implications of these results :

“Our research shows that by priming the body before an injury you can speed the process of tissue repair and recovery, similar to how a vaccine prepares the body to fight infection. We believe this could be a therapeutic approach to improve recovery in situations where injuries can be anticipated, such as surgery, combat or sports.”

Could we help senior citizens heal as fast as high school seniors?
Another application for this therapeutic approach may be for the elderly. Lots of things slow down when you get older including your body’s ability to heal itself. This observation sparks an intriguing question for Rando:

“Stem cell activity diminishes with advancing age, and older people heal more slowly and less effectively than younger people. Might it be possible to restore youthful healing by activating this [HGFA] pathway? We’d love to find out.”

I bet a lot of people would love for you to find out, too.

jCyte starts second phase of stem cell clinical trial targeting vision loss

retinitis pigmentosas_1

How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision

Studies show that Americans fear losing their vision more than any other sense, such as hearing or speech, and almost as much as they fear cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV/AIDS. That’s not too surprising. Our eyes are our connection to the world around us. Sever that connection, and the world is a very different place.

For people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), the leading cause of inherited blindness in the world, that connection is slowly destroyed over many years. The disease eats away at the cells in the eye that sense light, so the world of people with RP steadily becomes darker and darker, until the light goes out completely. It often strikes people in their teens, and many are blind by the time they are 40.

There are no treatments. No cures. At least not yet. But now there is a glimmer of hope as a new clinical trial using stem cells – and funded by CIRM – gets underway.

klassenWe have talked about this project before. It’s run by UC Irvine’s Dr. Henry Klassen and his team at jCyte. In the first phase of their clinical trial they tested their treatment on a small group of patients with RP, to try and ensure that their approach was safe. It was. But it was a lot more than that. For people like Rosie Barrero, the treatment seems to have helped restore some of their vision. You can hear Rosie talk about that in our recent video.

Now the same treatment that helped Rosie, is going to be tested in a much larger group of people, as jCyte starts recruiting 70 patients for this new study.

In a news release announcing the start of the Phase 2 trial, Henry Klassen said this was an exciting moment:

“We are encouraged by the therapy’s excellent safety track record in early trials and hope to build on those results. Right now, there are no effective treatments for retinitis pigmentosa. People must find ways to adapt to their vision loss. With CIRM’s support, we hope to change that.”

The treatment involves using retinal progenitor cells, the kind destroyed by the disease. These are injected into the back of the eye where they release factors which the researchers hope will help rescue some of the diseased cells and regenerate some replacement ones.

Paul Bresge, CEO of jCyte, says one of the lovely things about this approach, is its simplicity:

“Because no surgery is required, the therapy can be easily administered. The entire procedure takes minutes.”

Not everyone will get the retinal progenitor cells, at least not to begin with. One group of patients will get an injection of the cells into their worst-sighted eye. The other group will get a sham injection with no cells. This will allow researchers to compare the two groups and determine if any improvements in vision are due to the treatment or a placebo effect.

The good news is that after one year of follow-up, the group that got the sham injection will also be able to get an injection of the real cells, so that if the therapy is effective they too may be able to benefit from it.

Rosie BarreroWhen we talked to Rosie Barrero about the impact the treatment had on her, she said it was like watching the world slowly come into focus after years of not being able to see anything.

“My dream was to see my kids. I always saw them with my heart, but now I can see them with my eyes. Seeing their faces, it’s truly a miracle.”

We are hoping this Phase 2 clinical trial gives others a chance to experience similar miracles.


Related Articles:

CIRM-funded team uncovers novel function for protein linked to autism and schizophrenia

Imagine you’ve just stopped your car at the top of the steepest street in San Francisco. Now, if want to stay at the top of the hill you’re going to need to keep your foot on the brakes. Let go and you’ll start rolling down. Fast.

Don’t step off the brake pedal! Photo: Wikipedia

Conceptually, similar decision points happen in human development. A brain cell, for instance, has the DNA instructions to become any cell in the body but must “keep the brakes on”, or repress, genes responsible for other cell types. Release the silencing of those genes and the brain cell’s properties will get pulled toward other fates.

That’s the subject of a CIRM-funded research study published today in Nature which reports on the identification of a new type of repressor protein which opens up a new understanding of how brain cells establish and keep their identity. That may not sound so exciting to our non-scientist readers but this discovery could lead to new therapy approaches for neurological disorders like autism, schizophrenia, major depression and low I.Q.

Skin cells to brain cells with just three genes
In previous experiments, this Stanford University research team led by Marius Wernig, showed it’s possible to convert a skin cell to a brain cell, or neuron, by adding just three genes to the cells, including one called Myt1l. The other two genes were known to act as master “on switches” that activate a cascade of genes responsible for making neuron-specific proteins. Myt1l also helped increase the efficiency of this direct reprogramming but it’s exact role in the process wasn’t clear.

Direct conversion of skin cell into a neuron.
Image: Wernig Lab, Stanford

A closer examination of Myt1l protein function revealed that instead of being an on switch for neuron-specific genes, it was actually an off switch for skin-specific genes. Now, there’s nothing unusual about the existence of a protein that represses gene activity to help determine cell identity. But up until now, these repressors were thought to be “lineage specific” meaning they specifically switched off genes of a specific cell type. For example, a well-studied repressor called REST affects cell fate by putting the brakes on only nerve-specific genes. The case of Myt1l was different.

Many but one
The researchers found that, in brain cells, Myt1l not only blocked the activation of skin-specific genes, it also shut down genes related to lung, cartilage, heart and other cells fates. The one set of genes that Mytl1 repressor did not appear to act on was neuron-specific genes. From these results a “many but one” pattern emerged. That is; it seems Myt1l helps drive and maintain a neuron cell fate by shutting off gene networks for many different cell identities except for neurons. It’s a novel way to regulate cell fate, as Wernig explained in a press release:

Marius Wernig
Photo: Steve Fisch

“The concept of an inverse master regulator, one that represses many different developmental programs rather than activating a single program, is a unique way to control neuronal cell identity, and a completely new paradigm as to how cells maintain their cell fate throughout an organism’s lifetime.”

To build a stronger case for Myt1l function, the team looked at the effect of blocking the protein in the developing mouse brain. Sure enough, lifting Myt1l repression lead to a decrease in the number of neurons in the brain. Wernig described the impact of also inhibiting Myt1l in mature neurons:

“When this protein is missing, neural cells get a little confused. They become less efficient at transmitting nerve signals and begin to express genes associated with other cell fates.”

Potential cures can be uncovered withfundamental lab research
It turns out that Myt1l mutations have been recently found in people with autism, schizophrenia, major depression and low I.Q. Based on their new insights, the author suggest that in adults, these disorders may be caused by a neuron’s inability to maintain its identity rather than by a more permanent abnormality that occurred during fetal brain development. This hypothesis presents the exciting possibility of developing therapies that could improve symptoms.

Bye Bye bubble baby disease: promising results from stem cell gene therapy trial for SCID

Evangelina Padilla-Vaccaro
(Front cover of CIRM’s 2016 Annual Report)

You don’t need to analyze any data to know for yourself that Evangelina Vaccaro’s experimental stem cell therapy has cured her of a devastating, often fatal disease of the immune system. All you have to do is look at a photo or video of her to see that she’s now a happy, healthy 5-year-old with a full life ahead of her.

But a casual evaluation of one patient won’t get therapies approved in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, a very careful collection of quantitative data from a series of clinical trial studies is a must to prove that a treatment is safe and effective. Each study’s results also provide valuable information on how to tweak the procedures to improve each follow on clinical trial.

A CIRM-funded clinical trial study published this week by a UCLA research team in the Journal of Clinical Investigation did just that. Of the ten participants in the trial, nine including Evangelina were cured of adenosine deaminase-deficient severe combined immunodeficiency, or ADA-SCID, a disease that is usually fatal within the first year of life if left untreated.

In the past, children with SCID were isolated in a germ-free sterile clear plastic bubbles, thus the name “bubble baby disease”. [Credit: Baylor College of Medicine Archives]

ADA-SCID, also referred to as bubble baby disease, is so lethal because it destroys the ability to fight off disease. Affected children have a mutation in the adenosine deaminase gene which, in early development, causes the death of cells that normally would give rise to the immune system. Without those cells, ADA-SCID babies are born without an effective immune system. Even the common cold can be fatal so they must be sheltered in clean environments with limited physical contact with family and friends and certainly no outdoor play.

A few treatments exist but they have limitations. The go-to treatment is a blood stem cell transplant (also known as a bone marrow transplant) from a sibling with matched blood. The problem is that a match isn’t always available and a less than perfect match can lead to serious, life-threatening complications. Another treatment called enzyme replacement therapy (ERT) involves a twice-weekly injection of the missing adenosine deaminase enzyme. This approach is not only expensive but its effectiveness in restoring the immune system varies over a lifetime.

Evangelina being treated by Don Kohn and his team in 2012.  Photo: UCLA

The current study led by Don Kohn, avoids donor cells and enzyme therapy altogether by fixing the mutation in the patient’s own cells. Blood stem cells are isolated from a bone marrow sample and taken back to the lab where a functional copy of the adenosine deaminase gene is inserted into the patient’s cells. When those cells are ready, the patient is subjected to drugs – the same type that are used in cancer therapy – that kill off a portion of the patient’s faulty immune system to provide space in the bone marrow. Then the repaired blood stem cells are transplanted back into the body where they settle into the bone marrow and give rise to a healthy new immune system.

The ten patients were treated between 2009 and 2012 and their health was followed up for at least four years. As of June 2016, nine of the patients in the trial – (all infants except for an eight-year old) – no longer need enzyme injections and have working immune systems that allow them to play outside, attend school and survive colds and other infections that inevitably get passed around the classroom. The tenth patient was fifteen years old at the time of the trial and their treatment was not effective suggesting that early intervention is important. No serious side effects were seen in any of the patients.

Evangelina V

Evangelina Vaccaro (far right), who received Dr. Kohn’s treatment for bubble baby disease in 2012, with her family before her first day of school. Photo: UCLA, courtesy of the Vaccaro family

Now, this isn’t the first ever stem cell gene therapy clinical trial to successfully treat ADA-SCID. Kohn’s team and others have carried out clinical trials over the past few decades, and this current study builds upon the insights of those previous results. In a 2014 press release reporting preliminary results of this week’s published journal article, Kohn described the importance of these follow-on clinical trials for ensuring the therapy’s success:

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
160401

Don Kohn

“We were very happy that over the course of several clinical trials and after making refinements and improvements to the treatment protocol, we are now able to provide a cure for babies with this devastating disease using the child’s own cells.”

The team’s next step is getting FDA approval to use this treatment in all children with ADA-SCID. To reach this aim, the team is carrying out another clinical trial which will test a frozen preparation of the repaired blood stem cells. Being able to freeze the therapy product buys researchers more time to do a thorough set of safety tests on the cells before transplanting them into the patient. A frozen product is also much easier to transport for treating children who live far from the laboratories that perform the gene therapy. In November of last year, CIRM’s governing Board awarded Kohn’s team $20 million to support this project.

If everything goes as planned, this treatment will be the first stem cell gene therapy ever approved in the U.S. We look forward to adding many new photos next to Evangelina’s as more and more children are cured of ADA-SCID.

A stem cell clinical trial for blindness: watch Rosie’s story

Everything we do at CIRM is laser-focused on our mission: to accelerate stem cell treatments for patients with unmet medical needs. So, you might imagine what a thrill it is to meet the people who could be helped by the stem cell research we fund. People like Rosie Barrero who suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), an inherited, incurable form of blindness, which she describes as “an impressionist painting in a foggy room”.

The CIRM team first met Rosie Barrero back in 2012 at one of our governing Board meetings. She and her husband, German, attended the meeting to advocate for a research grant application submitted by UC Irvine’s Henry Klassen. The research project aimed to bring a stem cell-based therapy for RP to clinical trials. The Board approved the project giving a glimmer of hope to Rosie and many others stricken with RP.

Now, that hope has become a reality in the form of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved clinical trial which Rosie participated in last year. Sponsored by jCyte, a company Klassen founded, the CIRM-funded trial is testing the safety and effectiveness of a non-surgical treatment for RP that involves injecting stem cells into the eye to help save or even restore the light-sensing cells in the back of the eye. The small trial has shown no negative side effects and a larger, follow-up trial, also funded by CIRM, is now recruiting patients.

Almost five years after her first visit, Rosie returned to the governing Board in February and sprinkled in some of her witty humor to describe her preliminary yet encouraging results.

“It has made a difference. I’m still afraid of public speaking but early on [before the clinical trial] it was much easier because I couldn’t see any of you. But, hello everybody! I can see you guys. I can see this room. I can see a lot of things.”

After the meeting, she sat down for an interview with the Stem Cellar team to talk about her RP story and her experience as a clinical trial participant. The three-minute video above is based on that interview. Watch it and be inspired!

Three people left blind by Florida clinic’s unproven stem cell therapy

Unproven treatment

Unproven stem cell treatments endanger patients: Photo courtesy Healthline

The report makes for chilling reading. Three women, all suffering from macular degeneration – the leading cause of vision loss in the US – went to a Florida clinic hoping that a stem cell therapy would save their eyesight. Instead, it caused all three to go blind.

The study, in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, is a warning to all patients about the dangers of getting unproven, unapproved stem cell therapies.

In this case, the clinic took fat and blood from the patient, put the samples through a centrifuge to concentrate the stem cells, mixed them together and then injected them into the back of the woman’s eyes. In each case they injected this mixture into both eyes.

Irreparable harm

Within days the women, who ranged in age from 72 to 88, began to experience severe side effects including bleeding in the eye, detached retinas, and vision loss. The women got expert treatment at specialist eye centers to try and undo the damage done by the clinic, but it was too late. They are now blind with little hope for regaining their eyesight.

In a news release Thomas Alibini, one of the lead authors of the study, says clinics like this prey on vulnerable people:

“There’s a lot of hope for stem cells, and these types of clinics appeal to patients desperate for care who hope that stem cells are going to be the answer, but in this case these women participated in a clinical enterprise that was off-the-charts dangerous.”

Warning signs

So what went wrong? The researchers say this clinic’s approach raised a number of “red flags”:

  • First there is almost no evidence that the fat/blood stem cell combination the clinic used could help repair the photoreceptor cells in the eye that are attacked in macular degeneration.
  • The clinic charged the women $5,000 for the procedure. Usually in FDA-approved trials the clinical trial sponsor will cover the cost of the therapy being tested.
  • Both eyes were injected at the same time. Most clinical trials would only treat one eye at a time and allow up to 30 days between patients to ensure the approach was safe.
  • Even though the treatment was listed on the clinicaltrials.gov website there is no evidence that this was part of a clinical trial, and certainly not one approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates stem cell therapies.

As CIRM’s Abla Creasey told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Erin Allday, there is little evidence these fat stem cells are effective, or even safe, for eye conditions.

“There’s no doubt there are some stem cells in fat. As to whether they are the right cells to be put into the eye, that’s a different question. The misuse of stem cells in the wrong locations, using the wrong stem cells, is going to lead to bad outcomes.”

The study points out that not all projects listed on the Clinicaltrials.gov site are checked to make sure they are scientifically sound and have done the preclinical testing needed to reduce the likelihood they may endanger patients.

goldberg-jeffrey

Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg, a professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford and the co-author of the study, says this is a warning to all patients considering unproven stem cell therapies:

“There is a lot of very well-founded evidence for the positive potential of stem therapy for many human diseases, but there’s no excuse for not designing a trial properly and basing it on preclinical research.”

There are a number of resources available to people considering being part of a clinical trial including CIRM’s “So You Want to Participate in a Clinical Trial”  and the  website A Closer Look at Stem Cells , which is sponsored by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

CIRM is currently funding two clinical trials aimed at helping people with vision loss. One is Dr. Mark Humayun’s research on macular degeneration – the same disease these women had – and the other is Dr. Henry Klassen’s research into retinitis pigmentosa. Both these projects have been approved by the FDA showing they have done all the testing required to try and ensure they are safe in people.

In the past this blog has been a vocal critic of the FDA and the lengthy and cumbersome approval process for stem cell clinical trials. We have, and still do, advocate for a more efficient process. But this study is a powerful reminder that we need safeguards to protect patients, that any therapy being tested in people needs to have undergone rigorous testing to reduce the likelihood it may endanger them.

These three women paid $5,000 for their treatment. But the final cost was far greater. We never want to see that happen to anyone ever again.

A horse, stem cells and an inspiring comeback story that may revolutionize tendon repair

Everyone loves a good comeback story. Probably because it leaves us feeling inspired and full of hope. But the comeback story about a horse named Dream Alliance may do more than that: his experience promises to help people with Achilles tendon injuries get fully healed and back on their feet more quickly.

Dream Alliance

Dream Alliance was bred and raised in a very poor Welsh town in the United Kingdom. One of the villagers had the dream of owning a thoroughbred racehorse. She convinced a group of her fellow townsfolk to pitch in $15 dollars a week to cover the costs of training the horse. Despite his lowly origins, Dream Alliance won his fourth race ever and his future looked bright. But during a race in 2008, one of his back hoofs cut a tendon in his front leg. The seemingly career-ending injury was so severe that the horse was nearly euthanized.

It works in horses, how about humans?
Instead, he received a novel stem cell procedure which healed the tendon and, incredibly, the thoroughbred went on to win the Welsh Grand National race 15 months later – one of the biggest races in the UK that is almost 4 miles long and involves jumping 22 fences. Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in Liverpool developed the method and data gathered from the treatment of 1500 horses with this stem cell therapy show a 50% decrease in re-injury of the tendon.

It’s been so successful in horses that researchers at the University College of London and the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital are currently running a clinical trial to test the procedure in humans.  Over the weekend, the Daily Mail ran a news story about the clinical trial. In it, team lead Andrew Goldberg explained how they got the human trial off the ground:

“Tendon injuries in horses are identical to those in humans, and using this evidence [from the 1500 treated horses] we were able to persuade the regulators to allow us to launch a small safety study in humans.”

Tendon repair: there’s got to be another way

Achilles tendon connects the calf muscle to the heel bone

The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the body and connects the calf muscle to the heel bone. It takes on a lot of strain during running and jumping so it’s a well-known injury to professional and recreational athletes but injuries also occur in those with a sedentary lifestyle. Altogether Achilles tendon injury occurs in about 5-10 people per 100,000. And about 25%-45% of those injuries require surgery which involves many months of crutches and it doesn’t always work. That’s why this stem cell approach is sorely needed.

The procedure is pretty straight forward as far as stem cell therapies go. Bone marrow from the patient’s hip is collected and mesenchymal stem cells – making up a small fraction of the marrow – are isolated. The stem cells are transferred to petri dishes and allowed to divide until there are several million cells. Then they are injected directly into the injured tendon.

A reason to be cautiously optimistic
Early results from the clinical trial are encouraging with a couple of the patients experiencing improvements. The Daily Mail article featured the clinical trial’s first patient who went from a very active lifestyle to one of excruciating ankle pain due to a gradually deteriorating Achilles tendon. Though hesitant when she first learned about the trial, the 46-year-old ultimately figured that the benefits outweighed the risk. That turned out to be a good decision:

“I worried, because no one had ever had it before, except a horse. But I was more worried I’d end up in a wheelchair. The difference now is amazing. I can do five miles on the treadmill without pain, and take my dog Honey on long walks again.”

The researchers aren’t exactly sure how the therapy works but mesenchymal stem cells are known to release factors that promote regeneration and reduce inflammation. The first patient’s positive results are just anecdotal at this point. The clinical trial is still recruiting volunteers so definitive results are still on the horizon. And even if that small trial is successful, larger clinical trials will be required to confirm effectiveness and safety. It will take time but without the careful gathering of this data, doctors and patients will remain in the dark about their chances for success with this stem cell treatment.

Hopefully the treatment proves to be successful and ushers in a golden era of comeback stories. Not just for star athletes eager to get back on the field but also for the average person whose career, good health and quality of life depends on their mobility.

3D printing blood vessels: a key step to solving the organ donor crisis

About 120,000 people in the U.S. are on a waiting list for an organ donation and every day 22 of those people will die because there aren’t enough available organs. To overcome this organ donor crisis, bioengineers are working hard to develop 3D printing technologies that can construct tissues and organs from scratch by using cells as “bio-ink”.

Though each organ type presents its own unique set of 3D bioprinting challenges, one key hurdle they all share is ensuring that the transplanted organ is properly linked to a patient’s  circulatory system, also called the vasculature. Like the intricate system of pipes required to distribute a city’s water supply to individual homes, the blood vessels of our circulatory system must branch out and reach our organs to provide oxygen and nutrients via the blood. An organ won’t last long after transplantation if it doesn’t establish this connection with the vasculature.

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Digital model of blood vessel network. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

In a recent UC San Diego (UCSD) study, funded in part by CIRM, a team of engineers report on an important first step toward overcoming this challenge: they devised a new 3D bioprinting method to recreate the complex architecture of blood vessels found near organs. This type of 3D bioprinting approach has been attempted by other labs but these earlier methods only produced simple blood vessel shapes that were costly and took hours to fabricate.  The UCSD team’s home grown 3D bioprinting process, in comparison, uses inexpensive components and only takes seconds to complete. Wei Zhu, the lead author on the Biomaterials publication, expanded on this comparison in a press release:

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Wei Zhu

“We can directly print detailed microvasculature structures in extremely high resolution. Other 3D printing technologies produce the equivalent of ‘pixelated’ structures in comparison and usually require … additional steps to create the vessels.”

 

As a proof of principle, the bioprinted vessel structures – made with two human cell types found in blood vessels – were transplanted under the skin of mice. After two weeks, analysis of the skin showed that the human grafts were thriving and had integrated with the mice’s blood vessels. In fact, the presence of red blood cells throughout these fused vessels provided strong evidence that blood was able to circulate through them. Despite these promising results a lot of work remains.

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Microscopic 3D printed blood vessel structure. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

As this technique comes closer to a reality, the team envisions using induced pluripotent stem cells to grow patient-specific organs and vasculature which would be less likely to be rejected by the immune system.

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Shaochen Chen

“Almost all tissues and organs need blood vessels to survive and work properly. This is a big bottleneck in making organ transplants, which are in high demand but in short supply,” says team lead Shaochen Chen. “3D bioprinting organs can help bridge this gap, and our lab has taken a big step toward that goal.”

 

We eagerly await the day when those transplant waitlists become a thing of the past.

Listen Up: A stem cell-based solution for hearing loss

Can you hear me now?

If you’re old enough, you probably recognize this phrase from an early 2000’s Verizon Wireless commercial where the company claims to be “the nation’s largest, most reliable wireless network”. However, no matter how hard wireless companies like Verizon try, there are still dead zones where cell phone reception is zilch and you can’t in fact hear me now.

This cell phone coverage is a good analogy for the 5% of the world population, or 360 million people, that suffer from hearing loss. There are many causes for hearing loss including genetic predispositions, birth defects, constant exposure to loud noises, infectious diseases, certain drugs, ear infections and aging. There is no cure that fully restores hearing, but patients can benefit from hearing aids, cochlear implants and other hearing devices.

But listen to this. A new stem cell-based technique developed by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary may restore hearing in patients with hearing loss. The team discovered that stem cells in the inner ear can be manipulated in a culture dish to expand and develop into large quantities of cochlear hair cells, which make it possible for your brain to detect sound. Their work was published this week in the journal Cell Reports.

In a previous study, the Boston team found that stem cells in the inner ears of mice could be directly converted into cochlear hair cells, but they weren’t able to generate enough hair cells to fully restore hearing in these mice. Building on this work, the team isolated these stem cells, which express a protein called LGR5, and developed an augmentation technique consisting of drugs and growth factors to expand these stem cells and then specialize them into larger populations of hair cells.

A new technique converts stems cells into hair cells. Image credit Will McLean, Albert Edge, Massachusetts Eye and Ear

A new technique converts stems cells into hair cells. Image credit Will McLean, Albert Edge, Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

From a single mouse cochlea, they made more than 11,500 hair cells using their new augmentation method, which is more than 50 times the number of hair cells they made using a more basic method.

In a news release, senior author on the study, Dr. Albert Edge, explained the importance of their findings for patients with hearing loss:

Albert Edge

Albert Edge

“We have shown that we can expand Lgr5-expressing cells to differentiate into hair cells in high yield, which opens the door for drug discovery for hearing. We hope that by stimulating these cells to divide and differentiate that we will improve on our previous results in restoring hearing. With this knowledge, we can make better shots on goal, which is critical for repairing damaged ears. We have identified the cells of interest and have identified the pathways and drugs to target to improve on previous results. These clues may lead us closer to finding drugs that could treat hearing loss in adults.”