From our house to the White House. Kinda

Jackie Ward, PhD. Photo courtesy National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke

It’s always fun to meet someone early in their career and see how they grow and evolve and take on new challenges.

I first met Jackie Ward when she received a training grant from CIRM while she studied for her PhD at the University of California, San Diego. Jackie offered to write blogs for us about her experience and they were always fun, informative, elegantly written and very engaging. Fast forward a few years and Jackie became a part of Americans For Cures, then she became Chief of Staff at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and finally – at least so far – she took on the role of Assistant Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Not too shabby eh.

So, I reached out to Jackie and asked her some questions about her work and career. She generously put aside keeping the nation healthy to answer them. Enjoy.

  1. What made you decide to move from research into government.

I think if you asked my high school government teacher (shout out to Mr. Bell!), he would be the least surprised person that I have ended up where I am currently. I was always interested in topics and activities beyond science, but at a certain point you have to choose a path. When it came time to deciding my undergraduate major, I figured that if I pursued my interest in biology it would still keep my options open to do something different in my career, but if I chose to be a French major, or Political Science major, or English major – I might close the door in my ability to pursue scientific research. When I got to graduate school, I saw the impact of government (both state and federal) decisions on work in the lab. This takes the form of where funding goes, but also in the rules you have to follow while doing research. Though I liked the pursuit of new knowledge and being the one designing and performing experiments, I was interested in understanding more about how those government decisions are made upstream of the lab bench.

  1. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned in your time at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Maybe not “surprising” but the thing that may not be obvious to outsiders: OSTP’s budget is tiny compared to other Executive Branch agencies (like where I came from previously at NIH). The work we accomplish in this office is solely by forming partnerships and collaborations with others across the government. We are not typically the rowers of the boat, but we can be the steerer or navigator. (Is the term coxswain? I have never been on a crew team obviously.)

  1. Was it hard making the transition from research to advocacy and now policy?

Honestly I feel like my training in research set me up well for the jobs I’ve had in policy. There is often not someone telling you exactly how to do something – you have to do the work yourself to search the literature, talk to other people, find collaborators, and keep at it. And the skills that you hone in research – from keeping an organized lab notebook the whole way through to writing scientific papers – are some of the same skills you need in government. 

  1. At a time when so many people seem so skeptical of science how do you get your message out.

We have to meet people where they are. As a government official, I have great respect for messages that come from experts within the government – but that is not the only way the message should be getting out. Scientists and other experts within communities should also be spokespeople for science. I would urge scientists at every level – whether you are a citizen scientist, a medical doctor, a PhD student, or some other kind of expert – to engage with their communities and put the work in to understand how to effectively communicate at levels beyond just speaking to your colleagues.

  1. One of the issues that so many of us, including here at CIRM, are working on is improving our performance in diversity, equity and inclusion. How big an issue is that for you and your colleagues at OSTP and what are you doing to try and address it.

The mission of our office is to “maximize the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and justice for all Americans.” Those final two words are key: “all Americans.” It is the policy of this Office and our Administration that it is not okay for the benefits of science & technology to only reach a select few – who can afford it or who live in a certain zip code or who know the right people. 

This takes different forms depending on what kind of S&T work we are talking about, but I will give you an example from my own work. I have been leading an effort that aims to explore and act upon how digital health care delivery technologies can be used to increase access to healthcare in community-based health settings. We know that these cutting edge technologies are most likely to get to people who, for example, get their care at academic medical centers, or who have primo health insurance plans, or who are already tech savvy. We feel that as these technologies continue to grow within the healthcare system, that it is an imperative to ensure that they are accessible to practitioners and patients at community health centers, or to people who may not be tech geeks, or that they can be interoperable with the systems used by community health workers.

  1. During a time of Covid and now Monkeypox, what’s it like to have a front row seat and watch how government responds to public health emergencies.

My colleagues who work on outbreaks and pandemic responses are some of the most dedicated public servants I know. They will be the first to admit that we are continually learning and integrating new tools and technologies into our toolbox, and that is a constant effort. Emergent issues like outbreaks force decisions when there may not be a lot of information – that is a hard job.  

  1. I’ve always felt that DC would be a fun place to live and work (except during the height of summer!) what do you most like about it.

DC is a city full of people who care deeply (almost to a pathological extent) about the work they do and how to make the world a better place. There’s also incredible diversity here – which means a variety of viewpoints, languages, and food! I love that.

Jackie is not just a good writer. She’s also a great speaker. Here’s a clip of her responding to our Elevator Challenge many years ago, when she was still a fledgling researcher. Her explanation of what she does, is a master class in turning a complex subject into something easy to understand.

The present and future of regenerative medicine

One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet the high school students who take part in our SPARK or Summer Internship to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge program. It’s a summer internship for high school students where they get to spend a couple of months working in a world class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The students, many of whom go into the program knowing very little about stem cells, blossom and produce work that is quite extraordinary.

One such student is Tan Ieng Huang, who came to the US from China for high school. During her internship at U.C. San Francisco she got to work in the lab of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein. He is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Not only did she work in his lab, she took the time to do an interview with him about his work and his thoughts on the field.

It’s a fascinating interview and shows the creativity of our SPARK students. You will be seeing many other examples of that creativity in the coming weeks. But for now, enjoy the interview with someone who is a huge presence in the field today, by someone who may well be a huge presence in the not too distant future.

‘a tête-à-tête with Prof. Arnold Kriegstein’

The Kriegstein lab team: Photo courtesy UCSF

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Kriegstein is also the Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor of Neurona Therapeutics which seeks to provide effective and safe cell therapies for chronic brain disorder. A Clinician by training, Prof. Kriegstein has been fascinated by the intricate workings of the human brain. His laboratory focuses on understanding the transcriptional and signaling networks active during brain development, the diversity of neuronal cell types, and their fate potential. For a long time, he has been interested in harnessing this potential for translational and therapeutic intervention.

During my SEP internship I had the opportunity to work in the Kriegstein lab. I was in complete awe. I am fascinated by the brain. During the course of two months, I interacted with Prof. Kriegstein regularly, in lab meetings and found his ideas deeply insightful. Here’s presenting some excerpts from some of our discussions, so that it reaches many more people seeking inspiration!

Tan Ieng Huang (TH): Can you share a little bit about your career journey as a scientist?

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein (AK): I wanted to be a doctor when I was very young, but in high school I started having some hands-on research experience. I just loved working in the lab. From then on, I was thinking of combining those interests and an MD/PhD turned out to be an ideal course for me. That was how I started, and then I became interested in the nervous system. Also, when I was in high school, I spent some time one summer at Rockefeller University working on a project that involved operant conditioning in rodents and I was fascinated by behavior and the role of the brain in learning and memory. That happened early on, and turned into an interest in cortical development and with time, that became my career.

TH: What was your inspiration growing up, what made you take up medicine as a career?

AK: That is a little hard to say, I have an identical twin brother. He and I used to always share activities, do things together. And early on we actually became eagle scouts, sort of a boy scout activity in a way. In order to become an eagle scout without having to go through prior steps, we applied to a special program that the scouts had, which allowed us to shadow physicians in a local hospital. I remember doing that at a very young age. It was a bit ironic, because one of the evenings, they showed us films of eye surgery, and my brother actually fainted when they made an incision in the eye. The reason it makes me laugh now is because my brother became an eye surgeon many years later. But I remember our early experience, we both became very fascinated by medicine and medical research.

Tan Ieng and Dr. Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF

TH: What inspired you to start the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research Institute?

AK: My interest in brain development over the years became focused on earlier stages of development and eventually Neurogenesis, you know, how neurons are actually generated during early stages of in utero brain development. In the course of doing that we discovered that the radial glial cells, which have been thought for decades to simply guide neurons as they migrate, turned out to actually be the neural stem cells, they were making the neurons and also guiding them toward the cortex. So, they were really these master cells that had huge importance and are now referred to as neural stem cells. But at that time, it was really before the stem cell field took off. But because we studied neurogenesis, because I made some contributions to understanding how the brain develops from those precursors or progenitor cells, when the field of stem cells developed, it was very simple for me to identify as someone who studied neural stem cells. I became a neural stem cell scientist. I started a neural stem cell program at Columbia University when I was a Professor there and raised 15 million dollars to seed the program and hired new scientists. It was shortly after that I was approached to join UCSF as the founder of a new stem cell program. And it was much broader than the nervous system; it was a program that covered all the different tissues and organ systems.

TH: Can you tell us a little bit about how stem cell research is contributing to the treatment of diseases? How far along are we in terms of treatments?

AK: It’s taken decades, but things are really starting to reach the clinic now. The original work was basic discovery done in research laboratories, now things are moving towards the clinic. It’s a really very exciting time. Initially the promise of stem cell science was called Regenerative medicine, the idea of replacing injured or worn-out tissues or structures with new cells and new tissues, new organs, the form of regeneration was made possible by understanding that there are stem cells that can be tweaked to actually help make new cells and tissues. Very exciting process, but in fact the main progress so far hasn’t been replacing worn out tissues and injured cells, but rather understanding diseases using human based model of disease. That’s largely because of the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, a way of using stem cells to make neurons or heart cells or liver cells in the laboratory, and study them both in normal conditions during development and in disease states. Those platforms which are relatively easy to make now and are pretty common all over the world allow us to study human cells rather than animal cells, and the hope is that by doing that we will be able to produce conventional drugs and treatments that work much better than ones we had in the past, because they will be tested in actual human cells rather than animal cells.

TH: That is a great progress and we have started using human models because even though there are similarities with animal models, there are still many species-specific differences, right?

AK: Absolutely, in fact, one of the big problems now in Big Pharma, you know the drug companies, is that they invest millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in research programs that are based on successes in treating mice, but patients don’t respond the same way. So the hope is that by starting with a treatment that works on human cells it might be more likely that the treatment will work on human patients.

TH: What are your thoughts on the current challenges and future of stem cell research?

AK: I think this is an absolute revolution in modern medicine, the advent of two things that are happening right now, first the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, the ability to make pluripotent cells from adult tissue or cells from an individual allows us to use models of diseases that I mentioned earlier from actual patients. That’s one major advance. And the other is gene editing, and the combination of gene editing and cell-based discovery science allows us to think of engineering cells in ways that can make them much more effective as a form of cell therapy and those cell therapies have enormous promise. Right now, they are being used to treat cancer, but in the future, they might be able to treat heart attack, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, a huge list of disorders that are untreatable right now or incurable. They might be approached by the combination of cell-based models, cell therapies, and gene editing.

TH: I know there are still some challenges right now, like gene editing has some ethical issues because people don’t know if there can be side effects after the gene editing, what are your thoughts?

AK: You know, like many other technologies there are uncertainties, and there are some issues. Some of the problems are off-target effects, that is you try to make a change in one particular gene, and while doing that you might change other genes in unexpected ways and cause complications. But we are understanding that more and more now and can make much more precise gene editing changes in just individual genes without affecting unanticipated areas of the genome. And then there are also the problems of how to gene-edit cells in a safe way. There are certain viral factors that can be used to introduce the gene editing apparatus into a cell, and sometimes if you are doing that in a patient, you can also have unwanted side effects from the vectors that you are using, often they are modified viral vectors. So, things get complicated very quickly when you start trying to treat patients, but I think these are all tractable problems and I think in time they will all be solved. It will be a terrific, very promising future when it comes to treating patients who are currently untreatable.

TH: Do you have any advice for students who want to get into this field?

AK: Yes, I think it’s actually never been a better time and I am amazed by the technologies that are available now. Gene editing that I mentioned before but also single cell approaches, the use of single cell multiomics revealing gene expression in individual cells, the molecular understanding of how individual cells are formed, how they are shaped, how they change from one stage to another, how they can be forced into different fates. It allows you to envision true Regenerative medicine, improving health by healing or replacing injured or diseased tissues. I think this is becoming possible now, so it’s a very exciting time. Anyone who has an interest in stem cell biology or new ways of treating diseases, should think about getting into a laboratory or a clinical setting. I think this time is more exciting than it’s ever been.

TH: So excited to hear that, because in school we have limited access to the current knowledge, the state-of-art. I want to know what motivates you every day to do Research and contribute to this field?

AK: Well, you know that I have been an MD/PhD, as I mentioned before, in a way, there are two different reward systems at play. In terms of the PhD and the science, it’s the discovery part that is so exciting. Going in every day and thinking that you might learn something that no one has ever known before and have a new insight into a mechanism of how something happens, why it happens. Those kinds of new insights are terrifically satisfying, very exciting. On the MD side, the ability to help patients and improve peoples’ lives is a terrific motivator. I always wanted to do that, was very driven to become a Neurologist and treat both adult and pediatric patients with neurological problems. In the last decade or so, I’ve not been treating patients so much, and have focused on the lab, but we have been moving some of our discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic. We have just started a clinical trial, of a new cell-based therapy for epilepsy in Neurona Therapeutics, which is really exciting. I am hoping it will help the patients but it’s also a chance to actually see something that started out as a project in the laboratory become translated into a therapy for patients, so that’s an achievement that has really combined my two interests, basic science, and clinical medicine. It’s a little late in life but not too late, so I’m very excited about that.

Tan Ieng Huang, Kriegstein Lab, SEP Intern, CIRM Spark Program 2022

Stem Cell Agency Board Invests in 19 Discovery Research Programs Targeting Cancers, Heart Disease and Other Disorders

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Dr. Judy Shizuru, Stanford University

While stem cell and gene therapy research has advanced dramatically in recent years, there are still many unknowns and many questions remaining about how best to use these approaches in developing therapies. That’s why the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) today approved investing almost $25 million in 19 projects in early stage or Discovery research.

The awards are from CIRM’s DISC2 Quest program, which supports  the discovery of promising new stem cell-based and gene therapy technologies that could be translated to enable broad use and ultimately, improve patient care.

“Every therapy that helps save lives or change lives begins with a researcher asking a simple question, “What if?”, says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “Our Quest awards reflect the need to keep supporting early stage research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells work and how we can best tap into that potential to advance the field.”

Dr. Judy Shizuru at Stanford University was awarded $1.34 million to develop a safer, less-toxic form of bone marrow or hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HCT). HCT is the only proven cure for many forms of blood disorders that affect people of all ages, sexes, and races worldwide. However, current methods involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s own unhealthy blood stem cells and make room for the new, healthy ones. This approach is toxic and complex and can only be performed by specialized teams in major medical centers, making access particularly difficult for poor and underserved communities.

Dr. Shizuru proposes developing an antibody that can direct the patient’s own immune cells to kill diseased blood stem cells. This would make stem cell transplant safer and more effective for the treatment of many life-threatening blood disorders, and more accessible for people in rural or remote parts of the country.

Lili Yang UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center: Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson PhotoGraphics

Dr. Lili Yang at UCLA was awarded $1.4 million to develop an off-the-shelf cell therapy for ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Dr. Yang is using immune system cells, called invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) to attack cancer cells. However, these iNKT cells are only found in small numbers in the blood so current approaches involve taking those cells from the patient and, in the lab, modifying them to increase their numbers and strength before transplanting them back into the patient. This is both time consuming and expensive, and the patient’s own iNKT cells may have been damaged by the cancer, reducing the likelihood of success.

In this new study Dr. Yang will use healthy donor cord blood cells and, through genetic engineering, turn them into the specific form of iNKT cell therapy targeting ovarian cancer. This DISC2 award will support the development of these cells and do the necessary testing and studies to advance it to the translational stage.

Timothy Hoey and Tenaya Therapeutics Inc. have been awarded $1.2 million to test a gene therapy approach to replace heart cells damaged by a heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. with the highest incidence among African Americans. It’s caused by damage or death of functional heart muscle cells, usually due to heart attack. Because these heart muscle cells are unable to regenerate the damage is permanent. Dr. Hoey’s team is developing a gene therapy that can be injected into patients and turn their cardiac fibroblasts, cells that can contribute to scar tissue, into functioning heart muscle cells, replacing those damaged by the heart attack.

The full list of DISC2 Quest awards is:

APPLICATION NUMBERTITLE OF PROGRAMPRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORAMOUNT
  DISC2-13400  Targeted Immunotherapy-Based Blood Stem Cell Transplantation    Judy Shizuru, Stanford Universtiy  $1,341,910    
  DISC2-13505  Combating Ovarian Cancer Using Stem Cell-Engineered Off-The-Shelf CAR-iNKT Cells    Lili Yang, UCLA  $1,404,000
  DISC2-13515  A treatment for Rett syndrome using glial-restricted
neural progenitor cells  
  Alysson Muotri, UC San Diego  $1,402,240    
  DISC2-13454  Targeting pancreatic cancer stem cells with DDR1 antibodies.    Michael Karin, UC San Diego  $1,425,600  
  DISC2-13483  Enabling non-genetic activity-driven maturation of iPSC-derived neurons    Alex Savtchenko, Nanotools Bioscience  $675,000
  DISC2-13405  Hematopoietic Stem Cell Gene Therapy for Alpha
Thalassemia  
  Don Kohn, UCLA    $1,323,007  
    DISC2-13507  CAR T cells targeting abnormal N-glycans for the
treatment of refractory/metastatic solid cancers  
  Michael Demetriou, UC Irvine  $1,414,800  
  DISC2-13463  Drug Development of Inhibitors of Inflammation Using
Human iPSC-Derived Microglia (hiMG)  
  Stuart Lipton, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,658,123  
  DISC2-13390  Cardiac Reprogramming Gene Therapy for Post-Myocardial Infarction Heart Failure    Timothy Hoey, Tenaya Therapeutics  $1,215,000  
  DISC2-13417  AAV-dCas9 Epigenetic Editing for CDKL5 Deficiency Disorder    Kyle Fink, UC Davis  $1,429,378  
  DISC2-13415  Defining the Optimal Gene Therapy Approach of
Human Hematopoietic Stem Cells for the Treatment of
Dedicator of Cytokinesis 8 (DOCK8) Deficiency  
  Caroline Kuo, UCLA  $1,386,232  
  DISC2-13498  Bioengineering human stem cell-derived beta cell
organoids to monitor cell health in real time and improve therapeutic outcomes in patients  
  Katy Digovich, Minutia, Inc.  $1,198,550  
  DISC2-13469  Novel antisense therapy to treat genetic forms of
neurodevelopmental disease.  
  Joseph Gleeson, UC San Diego  $1,180,654  
  DISC2-13428  Therapeutics to overcome the differentiation roadblock in Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)    Michael Bollong, Scripps Research Inst.  $1,244,160  
  DISC2-13456  Novel methods to eliminate cancer stem cells    Dinesh Rao, UCLA  $1,384,347  
  DISC2-13441  A new precision medicine based iPSC-derived model to study personalized intestinal fibrosis treatments in
pediatric patients with Crohn’s diseas  
  Robert Barrett Cedars-Sinai  $776,340
  DISC2-13512  Modified RNA-Based Gene Therapy for Cardiac
Regeneration Through Cardiomyocyte Proliferation
  Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes  $1,565,784
  DISC2-13510  An hematopoietic stem-cell-based approach to treat HIV employing CAR-T cells and anti-HIV broadly
neutralizing antibodies  
  Brian Lawson, The Scintillon Institute  $1,143,600  
  DISC2-13475  Developing gene therapy for dominant optic atrophy using human pluripotent stem cell-derived retinal organoid disease model    Xian-Jie Yang, UCLA  $1,345,691  

Can regenerative medicine turn back the clock on aging?

One of my favorite phrases is “standing room only”. I got a chance to use it last week when we held a panel discussion on whether regenerative medicine could turn back the clock on aging. The event was at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and more than 150 people packed into a conference room to hear the debate (so far more than 800 also watched a live stream of the event.)

It’s not surprising the place was jammed. The speakers included:

  • Dr. Deepak Srivastava, the President of the Gladstone Institutes, an expert on heart disease and the former President of ISSCR.
  • Dr. Stanley “Tom” Carmichael, Chair of the Department of Neurology at UCLA and an expert on strokes and other forms of brain injury.
  • Adrienne Shapiro, the mother of a daughter with sickle cell disease, a tireless patient advocate and supporter of regenerative medicine research, and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a family support organization for people with sickle cell.
  • Jonathan Tomas, PhD, JD, the Chair of the CIRM Board.

And the topic is a timely one. It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of the people who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. So, what can be done to change that, to not just slow down or stop these diseases, but to turn back the clock, to repair the damage already done and replace cells and tissues already destroyed.

The conversation was enlightening, hopeful and encouraging, but also cautionary.

You can watch the whole event on our Youtube channel.

I think you are going to enjoy it.

Stem cells help researchers map out glaucoma in search for new treatments

Glaucoma is the world’s leading cause of irreversible blindness. There is no cure and current treatments are only able to slow down the progression of the disease. Now research using stem cells to create a genetic blueprint of glaucoma is giving scientist a powerful new tool to combat the disease.

Glaucoma occurs when healthy retinal ganglion cells, which relay information from the eyes to the brain, are damaged and die. However, researchers were unable to really understand what was happening because the only way to look at retinal ganglion cells was through very invasive procedures.

So, researchers in Australia took skin cells from people with glaucoma and people with healthy eyes and, using the iPSC method, turned them into retinal ganglion cells. They were then able to map the genetic expression of these cells and compare the healthy cells with the diseased ones.

In an interview with Science Daily, Professor Joseph Powell , who led the team, says they were able to identify more than 300 unique genetic features which could provide clues as to what is causing the vision loss.

“The sequencing identifies which genes are turned on in a cell, their level of activation and where they are turned on and off like a road network with traffic lights. This research gives us a genetic roadmap of glaucoma and identifies 312 sites in the genome where these lights are blinking. Understanding which of these traffic lights should be turned off or on will be the next step in developing new therapies to prevent glaucoma.”

Powell says by identifying underlying causes for glaucoma researchers may be able to develop new, more effective therapies.

The study is published in Cell Genomics.

Join us to hear how stem cell and gene therapy are taking on diseases of aging

It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of people in industrialized countries who die every day, die from diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Of those still alive the numbers aren’t much more reassuring. More than 80 percent of people over the age of 65 have a chronic medical condition, while 68 percent have two or more.

Current medications can help keep some of those conditions, such as high blood pressure, under control but regenerative medicine wants to do a lot more than that. We want to turn back the clock and restore function to damaged organs and tissues and limbs. That research is already underway and we are inviting you to a public event to hear all about that work and the promise it holds.

On June 16th from 3p – 4.30p PST we are holding a panel discussion exploring the impact of regenerative medicine on aging. We’ll hear from experts on heart disease and stroke; we will look at other ground breaking research into aging; and we’ll discuss the vital role patients and patient advocates play in helping advance this work.

The discussion is taking place in San Francisco at the annual conference of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. But you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. That’s because we are going to live stream the event.

Here’s where you can see the livestream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaUgsc5alDI

And if you have any questions you would like the panel to answer feel free to send them to us at info@cirm.ca.gov

Smoking marijuana could be bad for your heart, but there is an unusual remedy

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Smoking medical marijuana: Photo courtesy Elsa Olofsson

Millions of Americans use marijuana for medical reasons, such as reducing anxiety or helping ease the side effects of cancer therapy. Millions more turn to it for recreational reasons, saying it helps them relax. Now a new study says those who smoke marijuana regularly might be putting themselves at increased risk of heart disease and heart attack.

There has long been debate about the benefits versus the risks for using cannabis, with evidence on both sides to support each position. For example some studies have shown taking oral cannabinoids can help people cope with the nausea brought on by chemotherapy. Other studies have shown that regular use of marijuana can cause problems such as marijuana use disorder, a condition where the user is showing physical or psychological problems but has difficulty controlling or reducing their use of cannabis.

Now this latest study, from researchers at Stanford Medicine,  shows that THC, the psychoactive part of the drug, can cause inflammation in endothelial cells. These are the cells that line the interior of blood vessels. When these cells become inflamed it can cause a constriction of the vessels and reduce blood flow. Over time this can create conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack.

The researchers, led by Dr. Joe Wu, began by analyzing data from the UK Biobank. This included information about some 35,000 people who reported smoking marijuana. Of these around 11,000 smoked more than once a month. The researchers found that regular marijuana smokers:

  • Were significantly more likely than others to have a heart attack.
  • Were also more likely to have their first heart attack before the age of 50, increasing their risk of subsequent attacks.

The team then used the iPSC method to create human endothelial cells and, in the lab, found that THC appeared to promote inflammation in the cells. They also found signs it created early indications of atherosclerosis, where there is a buildup of fat and plaque in the arteries.

They then tested mice which had been bred to have high levels of cholesterol and who were given a high fat diet. Some of the mice were then injected with THC, at a level comparable to smoking one marijuana cigarette a day. Those mice had far larger amounts of atherosclerosis plaque in their arteries compared to the mice who didn’t get the THC.

In a news release, Dr.Wu, the lead author of the study, said: “There’s a growing public perception that marijuana is harmless or even beneficial. Marijuana clearly has important medicinal uses, but recreational users should think carefully about excessive use.”

On the bright side, the team also reported that the damage caused by THC can be stopped by genistein, a naturally occurring compound found in soy and fava beans. The study, in the journal Cell, also found that genistein blocked the bad impact of THC without impeding the good impacts.

“As more states legalize the recreational use of marijuana, users need to be aware that it could have cardiovascular side effects,” said Dr. Wu. “But genistein works quite well to mitigate marijuana-induced damage of the endothelial vessels without blocking the effects marijuana has on the central nervous system, and it could be a way for medical marijuana users to protect themselves from a cardiovascular standpoint.”

Meet the man who is unlocking the secrets of autism and sending mini-brains into space

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Dr. Alysson Muotri, UC San Diego

Normally if you meet someone who has a mini-fridge filled with brains, your first thought is to call the police. But when that someone is Dr. Alysson Muotri, a professor at U.C. San Diego, your second thought is “do tell me more.”

Alysson is a researcher who is fascinated by the human brain. He is working on many levels to try and unlock its secrets and give us a deeper understanding of how our brains evolved and how they work.

One of the main focuses of his work is autism (he has a son on the autism spectrum) and he has found a way to see what is happening inside the cells affected by autism—work that is already leading to the possibility of new treatments.

As for those mini-brains in his lab? Those are brain organoids, clumps of neurons and other cells that resemble—on a rudimentary level—our brains. They are ideal tools for seeing how our brains are organized, how the different cells signal and interact with each other. He’s already sent some of these brain organoids into space.

Brain in space

Alysson talks about all of this, plus how our brains compare to those of Neanderthals, on the latest episode of our podcast, Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation.

It’s a fascinating conversation. Enjoy.

How some brilliant research may have uncovered a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s 

Dr. Nicole Koutsodendris, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In the world of scientific research, the people doing clinical trials tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room. They’re the stars, the ones who are bringing potential therapies to patients. However, there’s another group of researchers who toil away in the background, but who are equally deserving of praise and gratitude. 

Dr. Lana Zholudeva, photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

These are the scientists who do basic or discovery-level research. This is where all great therapies start. This is where a researcher gets an idea and tests it to see if it holds promise. A good idea and a scientist who asks a simple question, “I wonder if…..”  

Dr. Yadong Huang, Photo courtesy Gladstone Institutes

In our latest “Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation” podcast we talk to three researchers who are asking those questions and getting some truly encouraging answers. They are scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco: one seasoned scientist and two young post-docs trying to make a name for themselves. And they might just have discovered a therapy that could help people battling Alzheimer’s disease. 

Enjoy the podcast.


  

Newly-developed Organoid Mimics How Gut and Heart Tissues Arise Cooperatively From Stem Cells 

Microscopy image of the new type of organoid created by Todd McDevitt, Ana Silva, and their colleagues in which heart tissue (red, purple, and orange masses) and gut tissue (blue and green masses) are growing together. Captured by Ana Silva.
Microscopy image of the new type of organoid created by Todd McDevitt, Ana Silva, and their colleagues in which heart tissue (red, purple, and orange masses) and gut tissue (blue and green masses) are growing together. Captured by Ana Silva. Image courtesy of Gladstone Institutes.

Scientists at Gladstone Institutes have discovered how to grow a first-of-its-kind organoid—a three-dimensional, organ-like cluster of cells—that mimics how gut and heart tissues arise cooperatively from stem cells.  

The study was supported by a grant from CIRM and the Gladstone BioFulcrum Heart Failure Research Program. 

Gladstone Senior Investigator Todd McDevitt, PhD said this first-of-its-kind organoid could serve as a new tool for laboratory research and improve our understanding of how developing organs and tissues cooperate and instruct each other. 

McDevitt’s team creates heart organoids from human induced pluripotent stem cells, coaxing them into becoming heart cells by growing them in various cocktails of nutrients and other naturally occurring substances. In this case, the scientists tried a different cocktail to potentially allow a greater variety of heart cells to form. 

To their surprise, they found that the new cocktail led to organoids that contained not only heart, but also gut cells. 

“We were intrigued because organoids normally develop into a single type of tissue—for example, heart tissue only,” says Ana Silva, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the McDevitt Lab and first author of the new study. “Here, we had both heart and gut tissues growing together in a controlled manner, much as they would in a normal embryo.” 

Shown here is the study’s first author, Ana Silva, a postdoctoral scholar in the McDevitt Lab. Image courtesy of Gladstone Institutes.

The researchers also found that compared to conventional heart organoids, the new organoids resulted in much more complex and mature heart structures—including some resembling more mature-like blood vessels. 

These organoids offer a promising new look into the relationship between developing tissues, which has so far relied on growing single-tissue organoids separately and then attempting to combine them. Not only that, the organoids could help clarify how the process of human development can go wrong and provide insight on congenital disorders like chronic atrial and intestinal dysrhythmias that are known to affect both heart and gut development. 

“Once it became clear that the presence of the gut tissue contributed to the maturity of the heart tissue, we realized we had arrived at something new and special,” says McDevitt. 

Read the official release about this study on Gladstone’s website

The study findings are published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.