ViaCyte Advances Cell Replacement Therapy for High Risk Type 1 Diabetes

San Diego regenerative medicine company ViaCyte announced this week that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved their Investigational New Drug (IND) Application for PEC-Direct, a cell-based therapy to treat patients at risk for severe complications caused by type 1 diabetes. In the US, IND approval is the final regulatory step required before a therapy can be tested in clinical trials.

PEC-Direct is a combination therapy consisting of cells encapsulated in a device that aims to replace the insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas destroyed in patients with type 1 diabetes. The device contains human stem cell-derived pancreatic progenitor cells that develop into insulin-secreting cells when the device is placed under the patient’s skin. Ports on the surface of the device allow blood vessels from the host to directly contact the cells within, allowing for engraftment of the transplanted cells and for their maturation into islet cells.  These cells can sense and regulate blood glucose levels by secreting the hormones found in islets, including insulin.

ViaCyte’s PEC-Direct device allows a patient’s blood vessels to integrate and make contact with the transplanted cells.

Because PEC-Direct allows for “direct vascularization”, in effect connecting the device to the blood system, patients will need to take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the donor cells. ViaCyte is therefore testing this therapy in patients who are at risk for serious complications associated with type 1 diabetes like severe hypoglycemia where a patient’s blood sugar is so low they need immediate medical assistance.

Severe hypoglycemia can occur because people with diabetes must inject insulin to control elevated blood sugar, but the injections can exceed the patients’ needs. The resulting low blood sugar can lead to dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and unconsciousness, even death. In some cases, sufferers are not aware of their hypoglycemia symptoms, putting them at increased risk of these life-threatening complications.

ViaCyte’s President and CEO, Dr. Paul Laikind, explained in a news release,

Paul Laikind

“While insulin therapy transformed type 1 diabetes from a death sentence to a chronic illness, it is far from a cure. Type 1 diabetes patients continue to deal with the daily impact of the disease and remain at risk for often severe long-term complications.  This is especially true for the patients with high-risk type 1 diabetes, who face challenges such as hypoglycemia unawareness and life-threatening severe hypoglycemic episodes.  These patients have a particularly urgent unmet medical need and could benefit greatly from cell replacement therapy.”

Approximately 140,000 people in the US and Canada suffer from this form of high-risk diabetes. These patients qualify for islet transplants from donated cadaver tissue. But because donor islets are in limited supply, ViaCyte Clinical Advisor, Dr. James Shapiro at the University of Alberta, believes PEC-Direct will address this issue by providing an unlimited supply of cells.

“Islet transplants from scarce organ donors have offered great promise for those with unstable, high-risk type 1 diabetes, but the procedure has many limitations.  With an unlimited supply of new islets that the stem cell-derived therapy promises, we have real potential to benefit far more patients with islet cell replacement.”

The company’s preclinical research on PEC-Direct, leading up to the FDA’s IND approval, was funded by a CIRM late stage preclinical grant. ViaCyte now plans to launch a clinical trial this year that will evaluate the safety and efficacy of PEC-Direct in the US and Canada. They will enroll approximately 40 patients at multiple clinical trial centers including the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the University of Minnesota, and UC San Diego. The trial will test whether the device is safe and whether the transplanted cells can produce enough insulin to relieve patients of insulin injections and hypoglycemic events.

ViaCyte has another product called PEC-Encap, a different implantable device that contains the same cells but protects these cells from the patient’s immune system. The device is being tested in a CIRM-funded Phase 1/2a trial, and ViaCyte is currently collaborating with W. L. Gore & Associates to improve the design of PEC-Encap to improve consistency of engraftment in patients.

Positively good news from Asterias for CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial for spinal cord injury

AsteriasWhenever I give a talk on stem cells one of the questions I invariably get asked is “how do you know the cells are going where you want them to and doing what you want them to?”

The answer is pretty simple: you look. That’s what Asterias Biotherapeutics did in their clinical trial to treat people with spinal cord injuries. They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to see what was happening at the injury site; and what they saw was very encouraging.

Asterias is transplanting what they call AST-OPC1 cells into patients who have suffered recent injuries that have left them paralyzed from the neck down.  AST-OPC1 are oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, which develop into cells that support and protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury. It’s hoped the treatment will restore connections at the injury site, allowing patients to regain some movement and feeling.

Taking a closer look

Early results suggest the therapy is doing just that, and now follow-up studies, using MRIs, are adding weight to those findings.

The MRIs – taken six months after treatment – show that the five patients given a dose of 10 million AST-OPC1 cells had no evidence of lesion cavities in their spines. That’s important because often, after a spinal cord injury, the injury site expands and forms a cavity, caused by the death of nerve and support cells in the spine, that results in permanent loss of movement and function below the site, and additional neurological damage to the patient.

Another group of patients, treated in an earlier phase of the clinical trial, showed no signs of lesion cavities 12 months after their treatment.

Positively encouraging

In a news release, Dr. Edward Wirth, the Chief Medical Officer at Asterias, says this is very positive:

“These new follow-up results based on MRI scans are very encouraging, and strongly suggest that AST-OPC1 cells have engrafted in these patients post-implantation and have the potential to prevent lesion cavity formation, possibly reducing long-term spinal cord tissue deterioration after spinal cord injury.”

Because the safety data is also encouraging Asterias is now doubling the dose of cells that will be transplanted into patients to 20 million, in a separate arm of the trial. They are hopeful this dose will be even more effective in helping restore movement and function in patients.

We can’t wait to see what they find.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: spinal cord injury trial keeps pace; SMART cells make cartilage and drugs

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial keeping a steady pace

Taking an idea for a stem cell treatment and developing it into a Food and Drug Administration-approved cell therapy is like running the Boston Marathon because it requires incremental progress rather than a quick sprint. Asterias Biotherapeutics continues to keep a steady pace and to hit the proper milestones in its race to develop a stem cell-based treatment for acute spinal cord injury.


Just this week in fact, the company announced an important safety milestone for its CIRM-funded SciStar clinical trial. This trial is testing the safety and effectiveness of AST-OPC1, a human embryonic stem cell-derived cell therapy that aims to regenerate some of the lost movement and feeling resulting from spinal cord injuries to the neck.

Periodically, an independent safety review board called the Data Monitoring Committee (DMC) reviews the clinical trial data to make sure the treatment is safe in patients. That’s exactly what the DMC concluded as its latest review. They recommended that treatments with 10 and 20 million cell doses should continue as planned with newly enrolled clinical trial participants.

About a month ago, Asterias reported that six of the six participants who had received a 10 million cell dose – which is transplanted directly into the spinal cord at the site of injury – have shown improvement in arm, hand and finger function nine months after the treatment. These outcomes are better than what would be expected by spontaneous recovery often observed in patients without stem cell treatment. So, we’re hopeful for further good news later this year when Asterias expects to provide more safety and efficacy data on participants given the 10 million cell dose as well as the 20 million cell dose.

It’s a two-fer: SMART cells that make cartilage and release anti-inflammation drug
“It’s a floor wax!”….“No, it’s a dessert topping!”
“Hey, hey calm down you two. New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping!”

Those are a few lines from the classic Saturday Night Live skit that I was reminded of when reading about research published yesterday in Stem Cell Reports. The clever study generated stem cells that not only specialize into cartilage tissue that could help repair arthritic joints but the cells also act as a drug dispenser that triggers the release of a protein that dampens inflammation.

Using CRISPR technology, a team of researchers led by Farshid Guilak, PhD, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, rewired stem cells’ genetic circuits to produce an anti-inflammatory arthritis drug when the cells encounter inflammation. The technique eventually could act as a vaccine for arthritis and other chronic conditions. Image: ELLA MARUSHCHENKO

The cells were devised by a research team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. They started out with skin cells collected from the tails of mice. Using the induced pluripotent stem cell technique, the skin cells were reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state. Then came the ingenious steps. The team used the CRISPR gene-editing method to create a negative feedback loop in the cells’ inflammation response. They removed a gene that is activated by the potent inflammatory protein, TNF-alpha and replaced it with a gene that blocks TNF-alpha. Analogous experiments were carried out with another protein called IL-1.

Rheumatoid arthritis often affects the small joints causing painful swelling and disfigurement. Image: Wikipedia

Now, TNF-alpha plays a key role in triggering inflammation in arthritic joints. But this engineered cell, in the presence of TNF-alpha, activates the production of a protein that inhibits the actions of TNF-alpha. Then the team converted these stem cells into cartilage tissue and they went on to show that the cartilage was indeed resistant to inflammation. Pretty smart, huh? In fact, the researchers called them SMART cells for “Stem cells Modified for Autonomous Regenerative Therapy.” First author Dr. Jonathan Brunger summed up the approach succinctly in a press release:

“We hijacked an inflammatory pathway to create cells that produced a protective drug.”

This type of targeted treatment of arthritis would have a huge advantage over current anti-TNF-alpha therapies. Arthritis drugs like Enbrel, Humira and Remicade are very effective but they block the immune response throughout the body which carries an increased risk for serious infections and even cancer.

The team is now testing the cells in animal models of rheumatoid arthritis as well as other inflammation disorders. Those results will be important to determine whether or not this approach can work in a living animal. But senior Dr. Farshid Guilak also has an eye on future applications of SMART cells:

“We believe this strategy also may work for other systems that depend on a feedback loop. In diabetes, for example, it’s possible we could make stem cells that would sense glucose and turn on insulin in response. We are using pluripotent stem cells, so we can make them into any cell type, and with CRISPR, we can remove or insert genes that have the potential to treat many types of disorders.”

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

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

New theory for how the nervous system develops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A UCLA press release explained what the scientists discovered next,

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

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

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

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

Age could be written in our stem cells.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identical twins not so identical (Todd Dubnicoff)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating partnerships to help get stem cell therapies over the finish line

Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea

Lewis & Clark & Sacagawea:

Trying to go it alone is never easy. Imagine how far Lewis would have got without Clark, or the two of them without Sacagawea. Would Batman have succeeded without Robin; Mickey without Minnie Mouse? Having a partner whose skills and expertise complements yours just makes things easier.

That’s why some recent news about two CIRM-funded companies running clinical trials was so encouraging.

Viacyte Gore

First ViaCyte, which is developing an implantable device to help people with type 1 diabetes, announced a collaborative research agreement with W. L. Gore & Associates, a global materials science company. On every level it seems like a natural fit.

ViaCyte has developed a way of maturing embryonic stem cells into an early form of the cells that produce insulin. They then insert those cells into a permeable device that can be implanted under the skin. Inside the device, the cells mature into insulin-producing cells. While ViaCyte has experience developing the cells, Gore has experience in the research, development and manufacturing of implantable devices.

Gore-tex-fabricWhat they hope to do is develop a kind of high-tech version of what Gore already does with its Gore-Tex fabrics. Gore-Tex keeps the rain out but allows your skin to breathe. To treat diabetes they need a device that keeps the immune system out, so it won’t attack the cells inside, but allows those cells to secrete insulin into the body.

As Edward Gunzel, Technical Leader for Gore PharmBIO Products, said in a news release, each side brings experience and expertise that complements the other:

“We have a proven track record of developing and commercializing innovative new materials and products to address challenging implantable medical device applications and solving difficult problems for biologics manufacturers.  Gore and ViaCyte began exploring a collaboration in 2016 with early encouraging progress leading to this agreement, and it was clear to us that teaming up with ViaCyte provided a synergistic opportunity for both companies.  We look forward to working with ViaCyte to develop novel implantable delivery technologies for cell therapies.”

AMD2

How macular degeneration destroys central vision

Then last week Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT), which is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), announced an investment from Santen Pharmaceutical, a Japanese company specializing in ophthalmology research and treatment.

The investment will help with the development of RPT’s therapy for AMD, a condition that affects millions of people around the world. It’s caused by the deterioration of the macula, the central portion of the retina which is responsible for our ability to focus, read, drive a car and see objects like faces in fine details.

RPE

RPT is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. Because these cells exist in a thin sheet in the back of the eye, the company is assembling these sheets in the lab by growing the RPE cells on synthetic scaffolds. These sheets are then surgically implanted into the eye.

In a news release, RPT’s co-founder Dennis Clegg says partnerships like this are essential for small companies like RPT:

“The ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

These partnerships are not just good news for those involved, they are encouraging for the field as a whole. When big companies like Gore and Santen are willing to invest their own money in a project it suggests growing confidence in the likelihood that this work will be successful, and that it will be profitable.

As the current blockbuster movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is proving; with the right partner you can not only make magic, you can also make a lot of money. For potential investors those are both wonderfully attractive qualities. We’re hoping these two new partnerships will help RPT and ViaCyte advance their research. And that these are just the first of many more to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagram of immature beta cells from Cell Metabolism.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: spinal cord injury trial update, blood stem cells in lungs, and using parsley for stem cell therapies

More good news on a CIRM-funded trial for spinal cord injury. The results are now in for Asterias Biotherapeutics’ Phase 1/2a clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy for patients with spinal cord injury. They reported earlier this week that six out of six patients treated with 10 million AST-OPC1 cells, which are a type of brain cell called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, showed improvements in their motor function. Previously, they had announced that five of the six patients had shown improvement with the jury still out on the sixth because that patient was treated later in the trial.

 In a news release, Dr. Edward Wirth, the Chief Medical officer at Asterias, highlighted these new and exciting results:

 “We are excited to see the sixth and final patient in the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort show upper extremity motor function improvement at 3 months and further improvement at 6 months, especially because this particular patient’s hand and arm function had actually been deteriorating prior to receiving treatment with AST-OPC1. We are very encouraged by the meaningful improvements in the use of arms and hands seen in the SciStar study to date since such gains can increase a patient’s ability to function independently following complete cervical spinal cord injuries.”

Overall, the trial suggests that AST-OPC1 treatment has the potential to improve motor function in patients with severe spinal cord injury. So far, the therapy has proven to be safe and likely effective in improving some motor function in patients although control studies will be needed to confirm that the cells are responsible for this improvement. Asterias plans to test a higher dose of 20 million cells in AIS-A patients later this year and test the 10 million cell dose in AIS-B patients that a less severe form of spinal cord injury.

 Steve Cartt, CEO of Asterias commented on their future plans:

 “These results are quite encouraging, and suggest that there are meaningful improvements in the recovery of functional ability in patients treated with the 10 million cell dose of AST-OPC1 versus spontaneous recovery rates observed in a closely matched untreated patient population. We look forward to reporting additional efficacy and safety data for this cohort, as well as for the currently-enrolling AIS-A 20 million cell and AIS-B 10 million cell cohorts, later this year.”

Lungs aren’t just for respiration. Biology textbooks may be in need of some serious rewrites based on a UCSF study published this week in Nature. The research suggests that the lungs are a major source of blood stem cells and platelet production. The long prevailing view has been that the bone marrow was primarily responsible for those functions.

The new discovery was made possible by using special microscopy that allowed the scientists to view the activity of individual cells within the blood vessels of a living mouse lung (watch the fascinating UCSF video below). The mice used in the experiments were genetically engineered so that their platelet-producing cells glowed green under the microscope. Platelets – cell fragments that clump up and stop bleeding – were known to be produced to some extent by the lungs but the UCSF team was shocked by their observations: the lungs accounted for half of all platelet production in these mice.

Follow up experiments examined the movement of blood cells between the lung and bone marrow. In one experiment, the researchers transplanted healthy lungs from the green-glowing mice into a mouse strain that lacked adequate blood stem cell production in the bone marrow. After the transplant, microscopy showed that the green fluorescent cells from the donor lung traveled to the host’s bone marrow and gave rise to platelets and several other cells of the immune system. Senior author Mark Looney talked about the novelty of these results in a university press release:

Mark Looney, MD

“To our knowledge this is the first description of blood progenitors resident in the lung, and it raises a lot of questions with clinical relevance for the millions of people who suffer from thrombocytopenia [low platelet count].”

If this newfound role of the lung is shown to exist in humans, it may provide new therapeutic approaches to restoring platelet and blood stem cell production seen in various diseases. And it will give lung transplants surgeons pause to consider what effects immune cells inside the donor lung might have on organ rejection.

Add a little vanilla to this stem cell therapy. Typically, the only connection between plants and stem cell clinical trials are the flowers that are given to the patient by friends and family. But research published this week in the Advanced Healthcare Materials journal aims to use plant husks as part of the cell therapy itself.

Though we tend to focus on the poking and prodding of stem cells when discussing the development of new therapies, an equally important consideration is the use of three-dimensional scaffolds. Stem cells tend to grow better and stay healthier when grown on these structures compared to the flat two-dimensional surface of a petri dish. Various methods of building scaffolds are under development such as 3D printing and designing molds using materials that aren’t harmful to human tissue.

Human fibroblast cells growing on decellularized parsley.
Image: Gianluca Fontana/UW-Madison

But in the current study, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took a creative approach to building scaffolds: they used the husks of parsley, vanilla and orchid plants. The researchers figured that millions of years of evolution almost always leads to form and function that is much more stable and efficient than anything humans can create. Lead author Gianluca Fontana explained in a university press release how the characteristics of plants lend themselves well to this type of bioengineering:

Gianluca Fontana, PhD

“Nature provides us with a tremendous reservoir of structures in plants. You can pick the structure you want.”

The technique relies on removing all the cells of the plant, leaving behind its outer layer which is mostly made of cellulose, long chains of sugars that make up plant cell walls. The resulting hollow, tubular husks have similar shapes to those found in human intestines, lungs and the bladder.

The researchers showed that human stem cells not only attach and grow onto the plant scaffolds but also organize themselves in alignment with the structures’ patterns. The function of human tissues rely on an organized arrangement of cells so it’s possible these plant scaffolds could be part of a tissue replacement cell product. Senior author William Murphy also points out that the scaffolds are easily altered:

William Murphy, PhD

“They are quite pliable. They can be easily cut, fashioned, rolled or stacked to form a range of different sizes and shapes.”

And the fact these scaffolds are natural products that are cheap to manufacture makes this a project well worth watching.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: building an embryo and reviving old blood stem cells

Building an embryo in the lab from stem cells
The human body has been studied for centuries yet little is known about the first 14 days of human development when the fertilized embryo implants into the mother’s uterus and begins to divide and grow. Being able to precisely examine this critical time window may help researchers better understand why 75% of conceptions never implant and why 30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

This lack of knowledge is due in part to a lack of embryos to study. Researchers rely on embryos donated by couples who’ve gone through in vitro fertilization to get pregnant and have left over embryos that are otherwise discarded. Using mouse stem cells, a research team from Cambridge University reports today in Nature that they’ve generated a cellular structure that has the hallmarks of a fertilized embryo.

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Stem cell-modeled mouse embryo (left) Mouse embryo (right); The red part is embryonic and the blue extra-embryonic.
Credit: Sarah Harrison and Gaelle Recher, Zernicka-Goetz Lab, University of Cambridge

This technique has been tried before without success. The breakthrough here was in the types of cells used. Rather that only relying on embryonic stems cells (ESCs), this study also included extra-embryonic trophoblast stem cells (TSCs), the cell type that goes on to form the placenta.

When grown on a 3D scaffold made from biological materials, the two cell types self-organized themselves into a pattern that closely resembles the early development of a true embryo. In a press release that was picked up by many media outlets, senior author Zernicka-Goetz spoke about the importance of including both TSCs and ESCs:

“We knew that interactions between the different types of stem cell are important for development, but the striking thing that our new work illustrates is that this is a real partnership – these cells truly guide each other. Without this partnership, the correct development of shape and form and the timely activity of key biological mechanisms doesn’t take place properly.”

The researchers think that lab-made embryos from mouse or human stem cells have little chance of developing into a fetus because other cell types critical for continued growth are not included. And there’s much to be learned by focusing on these very early events:

“We are very optimistic that this will allow us to study key events of this critical stage of human development without actually having to work on embryos.  Knowing how development normally occurs will allow us to understand why it so often goes wrong,” says Zernicka-Goetz.

Reviving old blood stem cells, part 1: repair the garbage collectors
One of the reasons that our bodies begin to deteriorate in old age is a weakening, dysfunctional immune system that increases the risk for serious infection, blood cancers and chronic inflammatory diseases like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Reporting this week in Nature, a UCSF research team presents evidence that a breakdown in our cell’s natural garbage collecting system may be partially to blame.

The team focused on a process called autophagy (literally meaning self “auto”-eating “phagy”) that keeps cells functioning properly by degrading faulty proteins and cellular structures. In particular, they examined autophagy in blood-forming stem cells, which give rise to all the cell types of the immune system. They found that autophagy was not working in 70 percent of blood stem cells from old mice. And these cells had all the hallmarks of an old cell. And the other 30 percent? In those cells, autophagy was fully functional and they looked like blood stem cells found in young mice.

The team went on to show that in blood stem cells, autophagy had an additional role that until now had not been observed: it helped slow the activity of the stem cells back to its default state by gobbling up excess mitochondria, the structures that produces a cell’s energy needs. Without this quieting of the stem cell, the over-active mitochondria led to chemical modification of the cell’s DNA that disrupted the blood stem cells’ ability to give rise to a proper balance of immune cells. In fact, young mice with genetic modifications that block autophagy generated blood stem cells with these old age-related characteristics.

But the researchers were also able to restore autophagy in blood stem cells collected from old mice by adding various drugs. Team lead Emmanuelle Passegué is optimistic this result could be translated into a therapeutic approach:

“This discovery might provide an interesting therapeutic angle to use in re-activating autophagy in all of the old HSCs, to slow the aging of the blood system and to improve engraftment during bone marrow or HSC transplantation,” Passegué said in a university press release.

Reviving old blood stem cells, part 2: fix the aging neighborhood
Another study this week focused on age-related disruptions in the function of blood stem cells but in this case an aging neighborhood is to blame. Blood stem cells form and hang out in areas of the bone marrow called niches. Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Ulm in Germany reported this week in EMBO that the age of the niche affects blood stem cell function.

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Microscopy of bone marrow. Red staining indicates osteopotin, blue staining indicates cell nuclei. Credit: University of Ulm

 

When blood stem cells from two-year old mice were transplanted into the bone marrow of eight-week old mice, the older stem cells took on characteristics of young stem cells including an enhance ability to form all the different cell types of the immune system. In trying to understand what was going on, the researchers focused on a bone marrow cell called an osteoblast which gives rise to bone. Osteoblasts produce osteopontin, a protein that plays an important role in the structure of the bone marrow. The team showed that as the bone marrow ages, osteopontin levels go down. And this reduction had effects on the health of blood stem cells. But, as team lead Hartmut Geiger mentions in a press release, this impact could be reversed which points to a potential new therapeutic strategy for age-related disease:

“We show that the place where HSCs form in the bone marrow loses osteopontin upon aging, but if you give back the missing protein to the blood-forming cells they suddenly rejuvenate and act younger. Our study points to exciting novel ways to have a better immune system and possibly less blood cancer upon aging by therapeutically targeting the place where blood stem cells form.”

Reducing animal testing with stem cells and electronic petri dishes

botoxThough the celebrities at Sunday’s Academy Awards worked hard to sport unique clothing and hair styles, I bet many had something in common: Botox injections. Botox, an FDA-approved, marketed form of Botulism neurotoxin, is well known for its wrinkle reducing effects. The neurotoxin’s other claim to fame is the fact that it’s the most lethal, naturally occurring poison known. Inhaling a minuscule amount – just 0.0000007 grams! – is enough to kill a 150 pound person.

Much smaller, non-lethal doses of Botulism neurotoxin are obviously used for its cosmetic application. It’s also used to treat a wide range of disorders including back pain, migraines and muscle spasms related to stroke and cerebral palsy. Because the toxin is produced naturally by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, the amount of toxin can vary in each batch during the manufacturing process. So, it’s critical to carefully analyze the Botulism neurotoxin dose.  The standard test which has been around since the 1920’s is the mouse bioassay. During the test, increasing concentrations of the neurotoxin are injected into mice which are then observed for signs of paralysis (Botulism neurotoxin acts by blocking communication between nerves and muscle).

As you might expect, the lab mice suffer during the test, sometimes suffocating during the process. Because of the large market for these Botulism neurotoxin-based products, it’s estimated that about 600,000 laboratory mice in US and Europe are killed via the mouse bioassay each year. Though the media often portrays scientists as callous, cold-hearted people that couldn’t care less about the welfare of their lab animals, in reality, it’s just the opposite. Case in point: a research group at the University of Bern in Switzerland reported this week in Frontiers in Pharmacology that they have devised an alternative system that could help make this mouse bioassay obsolete.

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Multi-electrode assay petri dish. Credit: Multichannel Systems

To set up this new assay system, the researchers relied on mouse embryonic stem cells. The researchers added chemicals to the cells, stimulating them to transform into nerve cells, or neurons. These stem cell-derived neurons were placed in specialized petri dishes that look something like a computer chip. Wired with mini electrodes, the lab dishes allowed the continuous recording of electrical signals generated by the neurons. Adding small doses of Botox to the cells, the scientists could detect a shutdown of the neuron signaling which is the same underlying effect that causes paralysis in the mouse bioassay.

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Stem cell-derived neurons (green) grown on electrodes (outlined in white) allows monitoring of electrical nerve signals. Credit: Stephen Jenkinson, Institute for Infectious Diseases, University of Bern

This sensitive test could have applications beyond the detection of Botulism neurotoxin. The electrode dishes are easy to scale up and do not require highly trained staff. So, without the need for expensive animal testing, this system could be used as a high throughput drug screening platform to find other substances that have beneficial effects on neuron signaling.

Rhythmic brain circuits built from stem cells

The TV commercial is nearly 20 years old but I remember it vividly: a couple is driving down a street when they suddenly realize the music on their tape deck is in sync with the repetitive activity on the street. From the guy casually dribbling a basketball to people walking along the sidewalk to the delivery people passing packages out of their truck, everything and everyone is moving rhythmically to the beat.

The ending tag line was, “Sometimes things just come together,” which is quite true. Many of our basic daily activities like breathing and walking just come together as a result of repetitive movement. It’s easy to take them for granted but those rhythmic patterns ultimately rely on very intricate, interconnected signals between nerve cells, also called neurons, in the brain and spinal cord.

Circuitoids: a neural network in a lab dish

A CIRM-funded study published yesterday in eLife by Salk Institute scientists reports on a method to mimic these repetitive signals in a lab dish using neurons grown from embryonic stem cells. This novel cell circuitry system gives the researchers a tool for gaining new insights into neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and ALS, and may even provide a means to fix neurons damaged by injury or disease.

The researchers changed or specialized mouse embryonic stem cells into neurons that either stimulate nerve signals, called excitatory neurons, or neurons that block nerve signals, called inhibitory neurons. Growing these groups of cells together led to spontaneous rhythmic nerve signals. These clumps of cells containing about 50,000 neurons each were dubbed circuitoids by the team.

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Confocal microscope immunofluorescent image of a spinal cord neural circuit made entirely from stem cells and termed a “circuitoid.” Credit: Salk Institute.

Making neural networks dance to a different beat

A video produced by the Salk Institute (see below), shows some fascinating microscopy visualizations of these circuitoids’ repetitive signals. In the video, team leader Samuel Pfaff explains that changing the ratio of excitatory vs inhibitory neurons had noticeable effects on the rhythm of the nerve impulses:

“What we were able to do is combine different ratios of cell types and study properties of the rhythmicity of the circuitoid. And that rhythmicity could be very tightly control depending on the cellular composition of the neural networks that we were forming. So we could regulate the speed [of the rhythmicity] which is kind of equivalent to how fast you’re walking.”

It’s possible that the actual neural networks in our brains have the flexibility to vary the ratio of the active excitatory to inhibitory neurons as a way to allow adjustments in the body’s repetitive movements. But the complexity of those networks in the human brain are staggering which is why these circuitoids could help:

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

“It’s still very difficult to contemplate how large groups of neurons with literally billions if not trillions of connections take information and process it,” says Pfaff in a press release. “But we think that developing this kind of simple circuitry in a dish will allow us to extract some of the principles of how real brain circuits operate. With that basic information maybe we can begin to understand how things go awry in disease.”