Genetic defect leads to slower production of brain cells linked to one form of autism

Child with Fragile X syndrome

Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is a genetic disorder that is the most common form of inherited intellectual disability in children, and has also been linked to a form of autism. Uncovering the cause of FXS could help lead to a deeper understanding of autism, what causes it and ultimately, it’s hoped, to treating or even preventing it.

Researchers at Children’s Hospital in Chicago looked at FXS at the stem cell level and found how a genetic defect has an impact on the development of neurons (nerve cells in the brain) and how that in turn has an impact on the developing brain in the fetus.

In a news release on Eurekalert, Dr. Yongchao Ma, the senior author of the study, says this identified a problem at a critical point in the development of the brain:

“During embryonic brain development, the right neurons have to be produced at the right time and in the right numbers. We focused on what happens in the stem cells that leads to slower production of neurons that are responsible for brain functions including learning and memory. Our discoveries shed light on the earliest stages of disease development and offer novel targets for potential treatments.”

The team looked at neural stem cells and found that a lack of one protein, called FMRP, created a kind of cascade that impacted the ability of the cells to turn into neurons. Fewer neurons meant impaired brain development. 

The findings, published in the journal Cell Reports, help explain how genetic information flows in cells in developing babies and, according to Dr. Ma, could lead to new ideas on how to treat problems.

“Currently we are exploring how to stimulate FMRP protein activity in the stem cell, in order to correct the timing of neuron production and ensure that the correct amount and types of neurons are available to the developing brain. There may be potential for gene therapy for fragile X syndrome.”

Old cells need not apply: how a stem cell’s age can impact potential treatments

Getting older is a normal, at times existential, part of life. The outward changes are abundant and noticeable: thinning of the hair, greying of the hair, and added lines to the face. There are also changes that happen that are not so abundantly clear in terms of outward appearance: slowing of healing time for bone fractures and a gradual loss of bodily function. The process of aging poses one very fundamental question — Could understanding how stem cells age lead to a greater understanding of how diseases develop? More importantly, could it guide the approach towards developing potential treatments? Two different studies highlight the importance of evaluating and understanding the process of aging in stem cells.

The first study, led by Dr. Michael Fehlings, looked at the impact of donor age in relation to stem cell therapies for spinal cord injuries (SCI). Dr. Fehlings, with a team of investigators from the University of Toronto and Krembil Research Institute, University Health Network, used an adult rat model to look at how cells derived from young vs. old stem cells affected tissue regeneration and recovery after a spinal cord injury.

Some rats with a SCI received cells derived from stem cells in the umbilical cord blood, which are considered “young” stem cells. The other rats with a SCI received cells derived from stem cells in the bone marrow, which are considered “old” stem cells. The results showed, ten weeks after treatment, that rats given the “young” stem cells exhibited a better recovery in comparison to those given the “old” stem cells.

In a press release, Dr. Fehlings stated that,

“Together, this minimally invasive and effective approach to cell therapy has significant implications on the treatment of traumatic cervical SCI and other central nervous system injuries. These results can help to optimize cell treatment strategies for eventual use in humans.”

The full results to this study were published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

The second, separate study, conducted by Dr. Stephen Crocker at UConn Health, looks at brain stem cells in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurodegenerative disease caused by the inflammation and destruction of the insulation around the nerves, also known as myelin. Problems with insulation around the nerves can prevent or complicate the electrical signals sent from the brain to the body, which can lead to problems with walking or other bodily movements.

Drawing of a healthy nerve cell with insulation (left) and one damaged by multiple sclerosis (right). Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Dr. Crocker and his team found that brain stem cells in patients with MS look much older when compared to the brain stem cells of a healthy person around the same age. Not only did these brain stem cells look older, but they also acted much older in comparison to their healthy counterparts. It was also discovered that the brain stem cells of MS patients were producing a protein that prevented the development of insulation around the nerves. What is more remarkable is that Dr. Crocker and his team demonstrated that when this protein is blocked, the insulation around the nerves develops normally again.

In a press release, Dr. Valentina Fossati, a neurologist at the New York Stem Cell Foundation who evaluated these brain stem cells, stated that,

“We are excited that the study of human stem cells in a dish led to the discovery of a new disease mechanism that could be targeted in much-needed therapeutics for progressive MS patients.”

The complete study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Of Mice and Men, and Women Too; Stem cell stories you might have missed

Mice brains can teach us a lot

Last week’s news headlines were dominated by one big story, the use of a stem cell transplant to effectively cure a person of HIV. But there were other stories that, while not quite as striking, did also highlight how the field is advancing.

A new way to boost brain cells (in mice!)

It’s hard to fix something if you don’t really know what’s wrong in the first place. It would be like trying to determine why a car is not working just by looking at the hood and not looking inside at the engine. The human brain is far more complex than a car so trying to determine what’s going wrong is infinitely more challenging. But a new study could help give us a new option.

Researchers in Luxembourg and Germany have developed a new computer model for what’s happening inside the brain, identifying what cells are not operating properly, and fixing them.

Antonio del Sol, one of the lead authors of the study – published in the journal Cell – says their new model allows them to identify which stem cells are active and ready to divide, or dormant. 

“Our results constitute an important step towards the implementation of stem cell-based therapies, for instance for neurodegenerative diseases. We were able to show that, with computational models, it is possible to identify the essential features that are characteristic of a specific state of stem cells.”

The work, done in mice, identified a protein that helped keep brain stem cells inactive in older animals. By blocking this protein they were able to help “wake up” those stem cells so they could divide and proliferate and help regenerate the aging brain.

And if it works in mice it must work in people right? Well, that’s what they hope to see next.

Deeper understanding of fetal development

According to the Mayo Clinic between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (though they admit the real number may be even higher) and our lack of understanding of fetal development makes it hard to understand why. A new study reveals a previously unknown step in this development that could help provide some answers and, hopefully, lead to ways to prevent miscarriages.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden used genetic sequencing to follow the development stages of mice embryos. By sorting those different sequences into a kind of blueprint for what’s happening at every stage of development they were able to identify a previously unknown phase. It’s the time between when the embryo attaches to the uterus and when it begins to turn these embryonic stem cells into identifiable parts of the body.

Qiaolin Deng, Karolinska Institute

Lead researcher Qiaolin Deng says this finding provides vital new evidence.

“Being able to follow the differentiation process of every cell is the Holy Grail of developmental biology. Knowledge of the events and factors that govern the development of the early embryo is indispensable for understanding miscarriages and congenital disease. Around three in every 100 babies are born with fetal malformation caused by faulty cellular differentiation.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.

Could a new drug discovery reduce damage from a heart attack?

Every 40 seconds someone in the US has a heart attack. For many it is fatal but even for those who survive it can lead to long-term damage to the heart that ultimately leads to heart failure. Now British researchers think they may have found a way to reduce that likelihood.

Using stem cells to create human heart muscle tissue in the lab, they identified a protein that is activated after a heart attack or when exposed to stress chemicals. They then identified a drug that can block that protein and, when tested in mice that had experienced a heart attack, they found it could reduce damage to the heart muscle by around 60 percent.

Prof Michael Schneider, the lead researcher on the study, published in Cell Stem Cell, said this could be a game changer.

“There are no existing therapies that directly address the problem of muscle cell death and this would be a revolution in the treatment of heart attacks. One reason why many heart drugs have failed in clinical trials may be that they have not been tested in human cells before the clinic. Using both human cells and animals allows us to be more confident about the molecules we take forward.”

Tips on how to be a great Patient Advocate from three of the best Advocates around

No one sets out to be a Patient Advocate. It’s something that you become because of something that happens to you. Usually it’s because you, or  a loved one or a friend, becomes ill and you want to help find a treatment. Whatever the reason, it is the start of a journey that often throws you into a world that you know nothing about: a world of research studies and scientific terminology, of talking to and trying to understand medical professionals, and of watching someone you love struggle.

It’s a tough, demanding, sometimes heart-breaking role. But it’s also one of the most important roles you can ever take on. Patient Advocates not only care for people afflicted with a particular disease or disorder, they help them navigate a new and scary world, they help raise money for research, and push researchers to work harder to find new treatments, maybe even cures. And they remind all of us that in the midst of pain and suffering the human touch, a simple kindness is the most important gift of all.

But what makes a great Patient Advocate, what skills do you need and how can you get them? At CIRM we are blessed to have some of the most amazing Patient Advocates you will ever meet. So we asked three of them to join us for a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event to share their knowledge, experience and expertise with you.

The Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Patient Advocacy” event will be on Thursday, March 14th from noon till 1pm PST.

The three experts are:

Gigi McMillan

Gigi McMillan became a Patient Advocate when her 5-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That has led her to helping develop support systems for families going through the same ordeal, to help researchers develop appropriate consent processes and to campaign for the rights of children and their families in research.

Adrienne Shapiro

Adrienne Shapiro comes from a family with a long history of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) and has fought to help people with SCD have access to compassionate care. She is the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about SCD and support for those with it. In addition she is now on the FDA’s Patient Engagement Collaborative, a new group helping the FDA ensure the voice of the patient is heard at the highest levels.

David Higgins

David Higgins is a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease. David has a family history of the disease and in 2011 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a scientist and advocate he has championed research into the disease and strived to raise greater awareness about the needs of people with Parkinson’s.

Please join us for our Facebook Live event on Patient Advocates on Thursday, March 14 from noon till 1pm and feel free to share information about the event with anyone you think would be interested.

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events. If you miss the broadcast, not to worry. We’ll be posting it on our Facebook video page, our website, and YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

CIRM-funded research is helping unlock the secrets behind “chemo brain”

chemo brain

Every year millions of Americans undergo chemotherapy. The goal of the treatment is to destroy cancer, but along the way more than half of the people treated lose something else. They suffer from something called “chemo brain” which causes problems with thinking and memory. In some cases it can be temporary, lasting a few months. In others it can last years.

Now a CIRM-funded study by researchers at Stanford has found what may be behind chemo brain and identifying potential treatments.

In an article on the Stanford Medicine News Center, senior author Michelle Monje said:

“Cognitive dysfunction after cancer therapy is a real and recognized syndrome. In addition to existing symptomatic therapies — which many patients don’t know about — we are now homing in on potential interventions to promote normalization of the disorders induced by cancer drugs. There’s real hope that we can intervene, induce regeneration and prevent damage in the brain.”

The team first looked at the postmortem brains of children, some of whom had undergone chemotherapy and some who had not. The chemotherapy-treated brains had far fewer oligodendrocyte cells, a kind of cell important in protecting nerve cells in the brain.

Next the team injected methotrexate, a commonly used chemotherapy drug, into mice and then several weeks later compared the brains of those mice to untreated mice. They found that the brains of the treated mice had fewer oligodendrocytes and that the ones they had were in an immature state, suggested the chemo was blocking their development.

The inner changes were also reflected in behavior. The treated mice had slower movement, showed more anxiety, and impaired memory compared to untreated mice; symptoms that persisted for up to six months after the injections.

As if that wasn’t enough, they also found that the chemo affected other cells in the brain, creating a kind of cascade effect that seemed to amplify the impaired memory and other cognitive functions.

However, there is some encouraging news in the study, which is published in the journal Cell. The researchers gave the treated mice a drug to reverse some of the side effects of methotrexate, and that seemed to reduce some of the cognitive problems the mice were having.

Monje says that’s where her research is heading next.

“If we understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms that contribute to cognitive dysfunction after cancer therapy, that will help us develop strategies for effective treatment. It’s an exciting moment.”

 

Why having a wrinkled brain is a good thing

Brain_01

We normally associate wrinkles with aging, such as wrinkled skin. But there’s one organ that is wrinkled right from the time we are born. It’s our brain. And new research shows those wrinkles are not a sign of age but are, in fact, a sign of just how large and complex our brains are.

The wrinkles, according to U.C. Santa Barbara (UCSB) postdoctoral scholar Eyal Karzbrun, are vital to our development because they create a greater surface area giving our neurons, or brain nerve cells, more space to create connections and deliver information.

In an article in UCSB’s Daily Nexus, Karzbrun says while our knowledge of the brain is increasing there are still many things we don’t understand:

“The brain is a complex organ whose organization is essential to its function. Yet it is ‘assembled by itself’. How this assembly takes place and what physics come into play is fundamental to our understanding of the brain.”

Eyal Karzbrun

Eyal Karzbrun: Photo courtesy UCSB

Karzbrun used stem cells to create 3D clusters of brain cells, to better understand how they organize themselves. He said brains are like computers in the way they rely on surface area to process information.

“In order to be computationally strong and quick, what your brain does is take a lot of surface area and put it in a small volume. The cerebral cortex, which occupies most of the volume in your brain, has a unique architecture in which neurons are layered on the outer surface of the brain, and the bulk of the brain is composed of axons, [or] biological wire which interconnect the neurons.”

Karzbrun says gaining a deeper understanding of how the brain is formed, and why it takes the shape it does, may help us develop new approaches to treating problems in the brain.

 

Stem Cell Roundup: Knowing the nose, stem cell stress and cell fate math.

The Stem Cellar’s Image of the Week.
Our favorite image this week, comes to us from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Looking like a psychedelic Rorschach test, the fluorescence microscopy depicts mouse olfactory epithelium (in green), a sheet of tissue that develops in the nose. The team identified a new stem cell type that controls the growth of this tissue. New insights from the study of these cells could help the team better understand why some animals, like dogs, have a far superior sense of smell than humans.

MouseOlfactoryEpithelium-700x467

Peering into the nasal cavity of a mouse. Olfactory epithelium is indicated by green. Image credit: Lu Yang, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

A Washington U. press release provides more details about this fascinating study which appears in Developmental Cell.

How stress affects blood-forming stem cells.
Stress affects all of us in different ways. Some people handle it well. Some crack up and become nervous wrecks. So, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that stress also affects some stem cells. What is a pleasant surprise is that knowing this could help people undergoing cancer therapy or bone marrow transplants.

First a bit of background. Hematopoietic, or blood-forming stem cells (HSCs) come from bone marrow and are supported by other cells that secrete growth factors, including one called pleiotrophin or PTN. While researchers knew PTN was present in bone marrow they weren’t sure precisely what role it played.

So, researchers at UCLA set out to discover what PTN did.

In a CIRM-funded study they took mice that lacked PTN in endothelial cells – these line the blood vessels – or in their stromal cells – which make up the connective tissue. They found that a lack of PTN in stromal cells caused a lack of blood stem cells, but a lack of PTN in endothelial cells had no impact.

Chute Combo w Barrier 800x533

Expression of pleiotrophin (green) in bone marrow blood vessels (red) and stromal cells (white) is shown in normal mice (left) and in mice at 24 hours following irradiation (right). Image credit: UCLA

However, as Dr. John Chute explained in a news release, when they stressed the cells, by exposing them to radiation, they found something very different:

“The surprising finding was that pleiotrophin from stromal cells was not necessary for blood stem cell regeneration following irradiation — but pleiotrophin from endothelial cells was necessary.”

In other words, during normal times the stem cells rely on PTN from stromal cells, but after stress they depend on PTN from endothelial cells.

Dr. Chute says, because treatments like chemotherapy and radiation deplete bone marrow stem cells, this finding could have real-world implications for patients.

“These therapies for cancer patients suppress our blood cell systems over time. It may be possible to administer modified, recombinant versions of pleiotrophin to patients to accelerate blood cell regeneration. This strategy also may apply to patients undergoing bone marrow transplants.”

The study appears in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Predicting the fate of cells with math
Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden reported this week that they have devised a mathematical model that can predict the fate of stem cells in the brain.

It may sound like science-fiction but the accomplished the feat by tracking changes in messenger RNA (mRNA), the genetic molecule that translates our DNA code into instructions for building proteins. As a brain stem cell begins specializing into specific cell types, hundreds of genes get turns on and off, which is observed by the rate of changes in mRNA productions.

The team built their predictive model by measuring these changes. In a press release, co-senior author, Harvard professor Peter Kharchenko, described this process using a great analogy:

“Estimating RNA velocity—or the rate of RNA change over time—is akin to observing the cooks in a restaurant kitchen as they line up the ingredients to figure out what dishes they’ll be serving up next.”

The team verified their mathematical model by inputting other data that was not use in constructing the model. Karolinkska Institutet professor, Sten Linnarsson, the other co-senior author on the study, described how such a model could be applied to human biomedical research:

“RNA velocity shows in detail how neurons and other cells acquire their specific functions as the brain develops and matures. We’re especially excited that this new method promises to help reveal how brains normally develop, but also to provide clues as to what goes wrong in human disorders of brain development, such as schizophrenia and autism.”

The study appears in the journal Nature.

Adding the missing piece: “mini-brain” method now includes important cell type

Although studying brain cells as a single layer in petri dishes has led to countless ground-breaking discoveries in neurobiology, it’s pretty intuitive that a two-dimensional “lawn” of cells doesn’t fully represent what’s happening in our complex, three-dimensional brain.

In the past few years, researchers have really upped their game with the development of brain organoids, self-organizing balls of cells that more accurately mimic the function of particular parts of the brain’s anatomy. Generating brain organoids from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from patient skin samples is revolutionizing the study of brain diseases (see our previous blog stories here, here and here.)

Copy of oligocortical_spheroids_in_wells

Tiny brain organoid spheres in petri dishes. Image: Case Western

This week, Case Western researchers reported in Nature Methods about an important improvement to the organoid technique that includes all the major cell types found in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain responsible for critical functions like our memory, language, and consciousness. The new method incorporates oliogodendrocytes, a cell type previously missing from the “mini-cortexes”. Oliogodendrocytes make myelin, a mix of proteins and fats that form a protective wrapping around nerve connections. Not unlike the plastic coating around an electrical wire, myelin is crucial for a neuron’s ability to send and receive signals from other neurons. Without the myelin, those signals short-circuit. It’s this breakdown in function that causes paralysis in multiple sclerosis patients and spinal cord injury victims.

With these new and improved organoids in hand, the researchers can now look for novel therapeutic strategies that could boost myelin production. In fact, the researchers generated brain organoids using iPSCs derived from patients with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, a rare but fatal inherited myelin disorder. Each patient had a different mutation and an analysis of each organoid pointed to potential targets for drug treatments.

Dr. Mayur Madhavan, a co-first author on the study, explained the big picture implications of their new method in a press release:

Mayur Madhavan, PhD

“These organoids provide a way to predict the safety and efficacy of new myelin therapeutics on human brain-like tissue in the laboratory prior to clinical testing in humans.”

 

 

Using biological “codes” to generate neurons in a dish

BrainWavesInvestigators at the Scripps Research Institute are making brain waves in the field of neuroscience. Until now, neuroscience research has largely relied on a variety of animal models to understand the complexities of various brain or neuronal diseases. While beneficial for many reasons, animal models do not always allow scientists to understand the precise mechanism of neuronal dysfunction, and studies done in animals can often be difficult to translate to humans. The work done by Kristin Baldwin’s group, however, is revolutionizing this field by trying to re-create this complexity in a dish.

One of the primary hurdles that scientists have had to overcome in studying neuronal diseases, is the impressive diversity of neuronal cell types that exist. The exact number of neuronal subtypes is unknown, but scientists estimate the number to be in the hundreds.

While neurons have many similarities, such as the ability to receive and send information via chemical cues, they are also distinctly specialized. For example, some neurons are involved in sensing the external environment, whereas others may be involved in helping our muscles move. Effective medical treatment for neuronal diseases is contingent on scientists being able to understand how and why specific neuronal subtypes do not function properly.

In a study in the journal Nature, partially funded by CIRM, the scientists used pairs of transcription factors (proteins that affect gene expression and cell identity), to turn skin stem cells into neurons. These cells both physically looked like neurons and exhibited characteristic neuronal properties, such as action potential generation (the ability to conduct electrical impulses). Surprisingly, the team also found that they were able to generate neurons that had unique and specialized features based on the transcription factors pairs used.

The ability to create neuronal diversity using this method indicates that this protocol could be used to recapitulate neuronal diversity outside of the body. In a press release, Dr. Baldwin states:

KristinBaldwin

Kristin Baldwin, PhD

“Now we can be better genome detectives. Building up a database of these codes [transcription factors] and the types of neurons they produce can help us directly link genomic studies of human brain disease to a molecular understanding of what goes wrong with neurons, which is the key to finding and targeting treatments.”

These findings provide an exciting and promising tool to more effectively study the complexities of neuronal disease. The investigators of this study have made their results available on a free platform called BioGPS in the hopes that multiple labs will delve into the wealth of information they have opened up. Hopefully, this system will lead to more rapid drug discovery for disease like autism and Alzheimer’s

Straight to brain: A better approach to ALS cell therapies?

Getting the go ahead to begin a clinical trial by no means marks an end to a research team’s laboratory studies. A clinical trial is merely one experiment and is designed to answer a specific set of questions about a specific course of treatment. There will inevitably be more questions to pursue back in the lab in parallel with an ongoing clinical trial to potentially enhance the treatment.

That’s the scenario for Cedar-Sinai’s current CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a cell therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Animal studies published this week in Stem Cells suggests that an additional route of therapy delivery may have potential and should also be considered.

Print

Microscopy image showing transplanted neural progenitor cells (green), the protein GDNF (red) and motor neurons (blue) together in brain tissue. Credit: Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute

ALS is an incurable disease that destroys motor neurons responsible for communicating muscle movement between the brain and the rest of the body via the spinal cord. ALS sufferers lose the use of their limbs and eventually the muscles that control breathing. They rarely live more than 3 to 5 years after diagnosis.

The CIRM-funded trial uses neural progenitor cells – which are similar to stem cells but can only specialize into different types of brain cells – that are genetically engineered to release a protein called GDNF that helps protect the motor neurons from destruction. These cells are being transplanted into the spinal cords of the clinical trial participants.

While earlier animal studies showed that the GDNF-producing progenitor cells can protect motor neurons in the spinal cord, the researchers also recognized that motor neurons within the brain are also involved in ALS. So, for the current study, the team tested the effects of implanting the GDNF-producing cells into the brains of rats with symptoms mimicking an inherited form of ALS.

The team first confirmed that the cells survived, specialized into the right type of brain cells and released GDNF into the brain. More importantly, they went on to show that the transplanted cells not only protected the motor neurons in the brain but also delayed the onset of the disease and extended the survival of the ALS rats.

These results suggest that future clinical trials should test transplantation of the cells into the brain in addition to the spinal cord. The team will first need to carry out more animal studies to determine the cell doses that would be most safe and effective. As first author Gretchen Thomsen, PhD, mentions in a press release, the eventual benefit to patients could be enormous:

Gretchen-Miller-photo

Gretchen Thomsen

“If we are able in the future to reproduce our research results in humans, we could improve both the quality and length of life for patients diagnosed with this devastating disease.”