Rare Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Heart Function: Breakthroughs for Three CIRM-Funded Studies

This past week, there has been a lot of mention of CIRM funded studies that really highlight the importance of the work we support and the different disease areas we make an impact on. This includes important research related to rare disease, Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), and heart function. Below is a summary of the promising CIRM-funded studies released this past week for each one of these areas.

Rare Disease

Comparison of normal (left) and Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) brains (right) at age 2. 

Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) is a rare genetic condition affecting boys. It can be fatal before 10 years of age and symptoms of the disease include weakness and breathing difficulties. PMD is caused by a disruption in the formation of myelin, a type of insulation around nerve fibers that allows electrical signals in the brain to travel quickly. Without proper signaling, the brain has difficulty communicating with the rest of the body. Despite knowing what causes PMD, it has been difficult to understand why there is a disruption of myelin formation in the first place.

However, in a CIRM-funded study, Dr. David Rowitch, alongside a team of researchers at UCSF, Stanford, and the University of Cambridge, has been developing potential stem cell therapies to reverse or prevent myelin loss in PMD patients.

Two new studies, of which Dr. Rowitch is the primary author, published in Cell Stem Cell, and Stem Cell Reports, respectively report promising progress in using stem cells derived from patients to identify novel PMD drugs and in efforts to treat the disease by directly transplanting neural stem cells into patients’ brains. 

In a UCSF press release, Dr. Rowitch talks about the implications of his findings, stating that,

“Together these studies advance the field of stem cell medicine by showing how a drug therapy could benefit myelination and also that neural stem cell transplantation directly into the brains of boys with PMD is safe.”

Type 1 Diabetes

Viacyte, a company that is developing a treatment for Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), announced in a press release that the company presented preliminary data from a CIRM-funded clinical trial that shows promising results. T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone that enables our bodies to break down sugar in the blood. CIRM has been funding ViaCyte from it’s very earliest days, investing more than $72 million into the company.

The study uses pancreatic precursor cells, which are derived from stem cells, and implants them into patients in an encapsulation device. The preliminary data showed that the implanted cells, when effectively engrafted, are capable of producing circulating C-peptide, a biomarker for insulin, in patients with T1D. Optimization of the procedure needs to be explored further.

“This is encouraging news,” said Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “We are very aware of the major biologic and technical challenges of an implantable cell therapy for Type 1 Diabetes, so this early biologic signal in patients is an important step for the Viacyte program.”

Heart Function

Although various genome studies have uncovered over 500 genetic variants linked to heart function, such as irregular heart rhythms and heart rate, it has been unclear exactly how they influence heart function.

In a CIRM-funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at UCSD studied this link further by deriving heart cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells were in turn derived from skin samples of seven family members. After conducting extensive genome-wide analysis, the team discovered that many of these genetic variations influence heart function because they affect the binding of a protein called NKX2-5.

In a press release by UCSD, Dr. Frazer elaborated on the important role this protein plays by stating that,

“NKX2-5 binds to many different places in the genome near heart genes, so it makes sense that variation in the factor itself or the DNA to which it binds would affect that function. As a result, we are finding that multiple heart-related traits can share a common mechanism — in this case, differential binding of NKX2-5 due to DNA variants.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Genetics.

“Brains” in a dish that can create electrical impulses

Brain organoids in a petri dish: photo courtesy UCSD

For several years, researchers have been able to take stem cells and use them to make three dimensional structures called organoids. These are a kind of mini organ that scientists can then use to study what happens in the real thing. For example, creating kidney organoids to see how kidney disease develops in patients.

Scientists can do the same with brain cells, creating clumps of cells that become a kind of miniature version of parts of the brain. These organoids can’t do any of the complex things our brains do – such as thinking – but they do serve as useful physical models for us to use in trying to develop a deeper understanding of the brain.

Now Alysson Muotri and his team at UC San Diego – in a study supported by two grants from CIRM – have taken the science one step further, developing brain organoids that allow us to measure the level of electrical activity they generate, and then compare it to the electrical activity seen in the developing brain of a fetus. That last sentence might cause some people to say “What?”, but this is actually really cool science that could help us gain a deeper understanding of how brains develop and come up with new ways to treat problems in the brain caused by faulty circuitry, such as autism or schizophrenia.

The team developed new, more effective methods of growing clusters of the different kinds of cells found in the brain. They then placed them on a multi-electrode array, a kind of muffin tray that could measure electrical impulses. As they fed the cells and increased the number of cells in the trays they were able to measure changes in the electrical impulses they gave off. The cells went from producing 3,000 spikes a minute to 300,000 spikes a minute. This is the first time this level of activity has been achieved in a cell-based laboratory model. But that’s not all.

When they further analyzed the activity of the organoids, they found there were some similarities to the activity seen in the brains of premature babies. For instance, both produced short bursts of activity, followed by a period of inactivity.

Alysson Muotri

In a news release Muotri says they were surprised by the finding:

“We couldn’t believe it at first — we thought our electrodes were malfunctioning. Because the data were so striking, I think many people were kind of skeptical about it, and understandably so.”

Muotri knows that this research – published in the journal Cell Stem Cell – raises ethical issues and he is quick to say that these organoids are nothing like a baby’s brain, that they differ in several critical ways. The organoids are tiny, not just in size but also in the numbers of cells involved. They also don’t have blood vessels to keep them alive or help them grow and they don’t have any ability to think.

“They are far from being functionally equivalent to a full cortex, even in a baby. In fact, we don’t yet have a way to even measure consciousness or sentience.”

What these organoids do have is the ability to help us look at the structure and activity of the brain in ways we never could before. In the past researchers depended on mice or other animals to test new ideas or therapies for human diseases or disorders. Because our brains are so different than animal brains those approaches have had limited results. Just think about how many treatments for Alzheimer’s looked promising in animal models but failed completely in people.

These new organoids allow us to explore how new therapies might work in the human brain, and hopefully increase our ability to develop more effective treatments for conditions as varied as epilepsy and autism.

CIRM-Funded Researchers Develop Chimeric “Mighty Mouse” Model to Study Alzheimer’s Disease

Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones, leader of team that developed the chimeric “Mighty Mouse” model at the University of California, Irvine

In ancient Greek mythology, a Chimera was a creature that was usually depicted as a lion with an additional goat head and a serpent for a tail. Due to the Chimera’s animal hybrid nature, the term “chimeric” came to fruition in the scientific community as a way to describe an organism containing two or more different sets of DNA.

A CIRM-funded study conducted by Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones and his team at UC Irvine describes a way for human brain immune cells, known as microglia, to grow and function inside mice. Since the mice contain a both human cells and their own mice cells, they are described as being chimeric.

In order to develop this chimeric “mighty mouse” model, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the ability to turn into any kind of cell, from cell samples donated by adult patients. For this study, the researchers converted iPSCs into microglia, a type of immune cell found in the brain, and implanted them into genetically modified mice. After a few months, they found that the implanted cells successfully integrated inside the brains of the mice.

By finding a way to look at human microglia grow and function in real time in an animal model, scientists can further analyze crucial mechanisms contributing to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.

For this particular study, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team looked at human microglia in the mouse brain in relation to Alzheimer’s, which could hold clues to better understand and treat the disease. The team did this by introducing amyloid plaques, protein fragments in the brain that accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s, and evaluating how the human microglia responded. They found that the human microglia migrated toward the amyloid plaques and surrounding them, which is what is observed in Alzheimer’s patients.

In a press release, Dr. Blurton-Jones expressed the importance of studying microglia by stating that,

“Microglia are now seen as having a crucial role in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s. The functions of our cells are influenced by which genes are turned on or off. Recent research has identified over 40 different genes with links to Alzheimer’s and the majority of these are switched on in microglia. However, so far we’ve only been able to study human microglia at the end stage of Alzheimer’s in post-mortem tissues or in petri dishes.”

Furthermore, Dr. Blurton-Jones highlighted the importance of looking at human microglia in particular by saying that,

“The human microglia also showed significant genetic differences from the rodent version in their response to the plaques, demonstrating how important it is to study the human form of these cell.”

The full results of this study were published in Cell.

CIRM funded study identifies potential drug target for deadly heart condition

Joseph Wu is co-senior author of a study that demonstrates how patient-derived heart cells can help scientists better study the heart and screen potential therapies. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch

Heart disease continues to be the number one cause of death in the United States. An estimated 375,000 people have a genetic form of heart disease known as familial dilated cardiomyopathy. This occurs when the heart muscle becomes weakened in one chamber in the heart, causing the open area of the chamber to become enlarged or dilated. As a result of this, the heart can no longer beat regularly, causing shortness of breath, chest pain and, in severe cases, sudden and deadly cardiac arrest.

A diagram of a normal heart compared to one with the dilated cardiomyopathy

A CIRM funded study by a team of researchers at Stanford University looked further into this form of genetic heart disease by taking a patient’s skin cells and converting them into stem cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can become any type of cell in the body. These iPSCs were then converted into heart muscle cells that pulse just as they do in the body. These newly made heart muscle cells beat irregularly, similar to what is observed in the genetic heart condition.

Upon further analysis, the researchers linked a receptor called PGDF to cause various genes to be more highly activated in the mutated heart cells compared to normal ones. Two drugs, crenolanib and sunitinib, interfere with the PGDF receptor. After treating the abnormal heart cells, they began beating more regularly, and their gene-activation patterns more closely matched those of cells from healthy donors.

These two drugs are already FDA-approved for treating various cancers, but previous work shows that the drugs may damage the heart at high doses. The next step would be determining the right dose of the drug. The current study is part of a broader effort by the researchers to use these patient-derived cells-in-a-dish to screen for and discover new drugs.

Dr. Joseph Wu, co-senior author of this study, and his team have generated heart muscle cells from over 1,000 patients, including those of Dr. Wu, his son, and his daughter. In addition to using skin cells, the same technique to create heart cells from patients can also be done with 10 milliliters of blood — roughly two teaspoons.

In a news release, Dr. Wu is quoted as saying,

“With 10 milliliters of blood, we can make clinically usable amounts of your beating heart cells in a dish…Our postdocs have taken my blood and differentiated my pluripotent stem cells into my brain cells, heart cells and liver cells. I’m asking them to test some of the medications that I might need to take in the future.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature.

Blood-brain barrier chip created with stem cells expands potential for personalized medicine

An Organ-Chip used in the study to create a blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The brain is a complex part of the human body that allows for the formation of thoughts and consciousness. In many ways it is the essence of who we are as individuals. Because of its importance, our bodies have developed various layers of protection around this vital organ, one of which is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The BBB is a thin border of various cell types around the brain that regulate what can enter the brain tissue through the bloodstream. Its primary purpose is to prevent toxins and other unwanted substances from entering the brain and damaging it. Unfortunately this barrier can also prevent helpful medications, designed to fix problems, from reaching the brain.

Several brain disorders, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and Huntington’s Disease (HD) have been linked to defective BBBs that keep out critical biomolecules needed for healthy brain activity.

In a CIRM-funded study, a team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center created a BBB through the use of stem cells and an Organ-Chip made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are a specific type of stem cells that can turn into any type of cell in the body and can be generated from a person’s own cells. In this study, iPSCs were created from adult blood samples and used to make the neurons and other supporting cells that make up the BBB. These cells were then placed inside an Organ-Chip which recreates the environment that cells normally experience within the human body.

Inside the 3-D Organ-Chip, the cells were able to form a BBB that functions as it does in the body, with the ability to block entry of certain drugs. Most notably, when the BBB was generated from cell samples of patients with HD, the BBB malfunctioned in the same way that it does in patients with the disease.

These findings expand the potential for personalized medicine for various brain disorders linked to problems in the BBB. In a press release, Dr. Clive Svendsen, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and senior author of the study, was quoted as saying,

“The study’s findings open a promising pathway for precision medicine. The possibility of using a patient-specific, multicellular model of a blood barrier on a chip represents a new standard for developing predictive, personalized medicine.”

The full results of the study were published in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell.

CIRM-funded study helps unlock some of the genetic secrets behind macular degeneration

Retina affected by age-related macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 60. It affects 10 million Americans. That’s more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. The causes of AMD are not known but are believed to involve a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors. There is no treatment for it.

Now, in a CIRM-funded study, researchers at UC San Diego (UCSD) have used stem cells to help identify genetic elements that could provide some clues as to the cause, and maybe give some ideas on how to treat it.

Before we get into what the researchers did let’s take a look at what AMD does. At a basic level it attacks the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. The retina receives light, turns it into electrical signals and sends it to the brain which turns it into a visual image.

The disease destroys the macula, the part of the retina that controls our central vision. At first, sight becomes blurred or fuzzy but over time it progresses to the point where central vision is almost completely destroyed.

To try and understand why this happens the team at UCSD took skin samples from six people with AMD and, using the iPSC method, turned those cells into the kinds of cell found in the retina. Because these cells came from people who had AMD they now displayed the same characteristics as AMD-affected retinal cells. This allowed the researchers to create what is called a “disease-in-a-dish” model that allowed them to see, in real time, what is happening in AMD.

They were able to identify a genetic variant that reduces production of a protein called VEGFA, which is known to promote the growth of new blood vessels.

In a news release Kelly Frazer, director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at UCSD and the lead author of the study, said the results were unexpected.

Kelly Frazer, PhD, UC San Diego

“We didn’t start with the VEGFA gene when we went looking for genetic causes of AMD. But we were surprised to find that with samples from just six people, this genetic variation clearly emerged as a causal factor.”

Frazer says this discovery, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, could ultimately lead to new approaches to developing new treatments for AMD.

CIRM already funds one clinical trial-stage project targeting AMD.

200 years later, the search for a cure for Parkinson’s continues

On the surface, actor Michael J. Fox, singer Neil Diamond, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and Scottish comedian Billy Connolly would appear to have little in common. Except for one thing. They all have Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

Their celebrity status has helped raise public awareness about the condition, but studies show that awareness doesn’t amount to an understanding of PD or the extent to which it impacts someone’s life. In fact a study in the UK found that many people still don’t think PD is a serious condition.

To try and help change that people around the world will be holding events today, April 11th, World Parkinson’s Day.

The disease was first described by James Parkinson in 1817 in “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”. In the essay Parkinson described a pattern of trembling in the hands and fingers, slower movement and loss of balance. Our knowledge about the disease has advanced in the last 200 years and now there are treatments that can help slow down the progression of the disease. But those treatments only last for a while, and so there is a real need for new treatments.  

That’s what Jun Takahashi’s team at Kyoto University in Japan hope to provide. In a first-of-its-kind procedure they took skin cells from a healthy donor and reprogrammed them to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), or stem cells that become any type of cell. These iPSCs were then turned into the precursors of dopamine-producing neurons, the cells destroyed by PD, and implanted into 12 brain regions known to be hotspots for dopamine production.

The procedure was carried out in October and the patient, a male in his 50s, is still healthy. If his symptoms continue to improve and he doesn’t experience any bad side effects, he will receive a second dose of dopamine-producing stem cells. Six other patients are scheduled to receive this same treatment.

Earlier tests in monkeys showed that the implanted stem cells improved Parkinson’s symptoms without causing any serious side effects.

Dompaminergic neurons derived from stem cells

Scientists at UC San Francisco are trying a different approach, using gene therapy to tackle one of the most widely recognized symptoms of PD, muscle movement.

In the study, published in the journal Annals of Neurology, the team used an inactive virus to deliver a gene to boost production of dopamine in the brain. In a Phase 1 clinical trial 15 patients, whose medication was no longer able to fully control their movement disorder, were treated with this approach. Not only were they able to reduce their medication – up to 42 percent in some cases – the medication they did take lasted longer before causing dyskinesia, an involuntary muscle movement that is a common side effect of the PD medication.

In a news article Dr. Chad Christine, the first author of the study, says this approach may also help reduce other symptoms.

“Since many patients were able to substantially reduce the amount of Parkinson’s medications, this gene therapy treatment may also help patients by reducing dose-dependent side effects, such as sleepiness and nausea.” 

At CIRM we have a long history of funding research into PD. Over the years we have invested more than $55 million to try and develop new treatments for the disease.

In June 2018, the CIRM Board awarded $5.8 million to UC San Francisco’s Krystof Bankiewicz and Cedars-Sinai’s Clive Svendsen. They are using neural progenitor cells, which have the ability to multiply and turn into other kinds of brain cells, and engineering them to express the growth factor GDNF which is known to protect the cells damaged in PD. The hope is that when transplanted into the brain of someone with PD, it will help slow down, or even halt the progression of the disease. 

The CIRM funding will hopefully help the team do the pre-clinical research needed to get the FDA’s go-ahead to test this approach in a clinical trial. 

David Higgins, CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease

At the time of the award David Higgins, PhD, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease, said: “One of the big frustrations for people with Parkinson’s, and their families and loved ones, is that existing therapies only address the symptoms and do little to slow down or even reverse the progress of the disease. That’s why it’s important to support any project that has the potential to address Parkinson’s at a much deeper, longer-lasting level.”

But we don’t just fund the research, we try to bring the scientific community together to help identify obstacles and overcome them. In March of 2013, in collaboration with the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we held a two-day workshop on cell therapies for Parkinson’s Disease. The experts outlined the steps needed to help bring the most promising research to patients.

Around one million Americans are currently living with Parkinson’s Disease. Worldwide the number is more than ten million. Those numbers are only expected to increase as the population ages. There is clearly a huge need to develop new treatments and, hopefully one day, a cure.

Till then days like April 11th will be an opportunity to remind ourselves why this work is so important.

First patient treated for colon cancer using reprogrammed adult cells

Dr. Sandip Patel (left) and Dr. Dan Kaufman (center) of UC San Diego School of Medicine enjoy a light-hearted moment before Derek Ruff (right) receives the first treatment for cancer using human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs). Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Health.

For patients battling cancer for the first time, it can be quite a draining and grueling process. Many treatments are successful and patients go into remission. However, there are instances where the cancer returns in a much more aggressive form. Unfortunately, this was the case for Derek Ruff.

After being in remission for ten years, Derek’s cancer returned as Stage IV colon cancer, meaning that the cancer has spread from the colon to distant organs and tissues. According to statistics from Fight Colorectal Cancer, colorectal cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death among men and women combined in the United States. 1 in 20 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in their lifetime and it is estimated that there will be 140,250 new cases in 2019 alone. Fortunately, Derek was able to enroll in a groundbreaking clinical trial to combat his cancer.

In February 2019, as part of a clinical trial at the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health in collaboration with Fate Therapeutics, Derek became the first patient in the world to be treated for cancer with human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs). hiPSCs are human adult cells, such as those found on the skin, that are reprogrammed into stem cells with the ability to turn into virtually any kind of cell. In this trial, hiPSCs were reprogrammed into natural killer (NK) cells, which are specialized immune cells that are very effective at killing cancer cells, and are aimed at treating Derek’s colon cancer.

A video clip from ABC 10 News San Diego features an interview with Derek and the groundbreaking work being done.

In a public release, Dr. Dan Kaufman, one of the lead investigators of this trial at UC San Diego School of Medicine, was quoted as saying,

“This is a landmark accomplishment for the field of stem cell-based medicine and cancer immunotherapy. This clinical trial represents the first use of cells produced from human induced pluripotent stem cells to better treat and fight cancer.”

In the past, CIRM has given Dr. Kaufman funding related to the development of NK cells. One was a $1.9 million grant for developing a different type of NK cell from hiPSCs, which could also potentially treat patients with lethal cancers. The second grant was a $4.7 million grant for developing NK cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to potentially treat patients with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

In the public release, Dr. Kaufman is also quoted as saying,

“This is a culmination of 15 years of work. My lab was the first to produce natural killer cells from human pluripotent stem cells. Together with Fate Therapeutics, we’ve been able to show in preclinical research that this new strategy to produce pluripotent stem cell-derived natural killer cells can effectively kill cancer cells in cell culture and in mouse models.”

Organoids revolutionize approach to studying a variety of diseases

Organoids

There are limitations to studying cells under a microscope. To understand some of the more complex processes, it is critical to see how these cells behave in an environment that is similar to conditions in the body. The production of organoids has revolutionized this approach.

Organoids are three-dimensional structures derived from stem cells that have similar characteristics of an actual organ. There have been several studies recently published that have used this approach to understand a wide scope of different areas.

In one such instance, researchers at The University of Cambridge were able to grow a “mini-brain” from human stem cells. To demonstrate that this organoid had functional capabilities similar to that of an actual brain, the researchers hooked it up to a mouse spinal cord and surrounding muscle. What they found was remarkable– the “mini-brain” sent electrial signals to the spinal cord that made the surrounding muscles twitch. This model could pave the way for studying neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Spinal muscular atrophy

Speaking of SMA, researchers in Singapore have used organoids to come up with some findings that might be able to help people battling the condition.

SMA is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a protein deficiency that results in nerve degeneration, paralysis and even premature death. The fact that it mainly affects children makes it even worse. Not much is known how SMA develops and even less how to treat or prevent it.

That’s where the research from the A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) comes in. Using the iPSC method they turned tissue samples from healthy people and people with SMA into spinal organoids.

They then compared the way the cells developed in the organoids and found that the motor nerve cells from healthy people were fully formed by day 35. However, the cells from people with SMA started to degenerate before they got to that point.

They also found that the protein problem that causes SMA to develop did so by causing the motor nerve cells to divide, something they don’t normally do. So, by blocking the mechanism that caused the cells to divide they were able to prevent the cells from dying.

In an article in Science and Technology Research News lead researcher Shi-Yan Ng said this approach could help unlock clues to other diseases such as ALS.

“We are one of the first labs to report the formation of spinal organoids. Our study presents a new method for culturing human spinal-cord-like tissues that could be crucial for future research.”

Just yesterday the CIRM Board awarded almost $4 million to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics to try and develop a treatment for another debilitating back problem called degenerative spondylolisthesis.

And finally, organoid modeling was used to better understand and study an infectious disease. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin created fallopian tube organoids from normal human cells. Fallopian tubes are the pair of tubes found inside women along which the eggs travel from the ovaries to the uterus. The scientists observed the effects of chronic infections of Chlamydia, a sexually transmittable infection. It was discovered that chronic infections lead to permanent changes at the DNA level as the cells age. These changes to DNA are permanent even after the infection is cleared, and could be indicative of the increased risk of cervical cancer observed in women with Chlamydia or those that have contracted it in the past.

Stories that caught our eye: National Geographic takes a deep dive into iPS cells; Japanese researchers start iPS cell clinical trial for spinal cord injury; and do high fat diets increase your risk of colorectal cancer

Can cell therapy beat the most difficult diseases?

That’s the question posed in a headline in National Geographic. The answer; maybe, but it is going to take time and money.

The article focuses on the use of iPS cells, the man-made equivalent of embryonic stem cells that can be turned into any kind of cell or tissue in the body. The reporter interviews Kemal Malik, the member of the Board of Management for pharmaceutical giant Bayer who is responsible for innovation. When it comes to iPS cells, it’s clear Malik is a true believer in their potential.

“Because every cell in our bodies can be produced from a stem cell, the applicability of cell therapy is vast. iPSC technology has the potential to tackle some of the most challenging diseases on the planet.”

But he also acknowledges that the field faces some daunting challenges, including:

  • How to manufacture the cells on a large scale without sacrificing quality and purity
  • How do you create products that have a stable shelf life and can be stored until needed?
  • How do you handle immune reactions if you are giving these cells to patients?

Nonetheless, Malik remains confident we can overcome those challenges and realize the full potential of these cells.

“I believe human beings are on the cusp of the next big wave of pharmaceutical innovation. The use of living cells to make people better.”

As if to prove Malik right there was also news this week that researchers at Japan’s Keio University have been given permission to start a clinical trial using iPS cells to treat people with spinal cord injuries. This would be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Japan launches iPSC clinical trial for spinal cord injury

An article in Biospace says that the researchers plan to treat four patients who have suffered varying degrees of paralysis due to a spinal cord injury.  They will take cells from the patients and, using the iPS method, turn them into the kind of nerve cells found in the spinal cord, and then transplant two million of them back into the patient. The hope is that this will create new connections that restore movement and feeling in the individuals.

This trial is expected to start sometime this summer.

CIRM has already funded a first-of-its-kind clinical trial for spinal cord injury with Asterias Biotherapeutics. That clinical trial used embryonic stem cells turned into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells – which develop into cells that support and protect nerve cells in the central nervous system. We blogged about the encouraging results from that trial here.

High fat diet drives colorectal cancer

Finally today, researchers at Salk have uncovered a possible cause to the rise in colorectal cancer deaths among people under the age of 55; eating too much high fat food.

Our digestive system works hard to break down the foods we eat and one way it does that is by using bile acids. Those acids don’t just break down the food, however, they also break down the lining of our intestines. Fortunately, our gut has a steady supply of stem cells that can repair and replace that lining. Unfortunately, at least according to the team from Salk, mutations in these stem cells can lead to colorectal cancer.

The study, published in the journal Cell, shows that bile acids affect a protein called FXR that is responsible for ensuring that gut stem cells produce a steady supply of new lining for the gut wall. When someone eats a high fat diet it upsets the balance of bile acids, starting a cascade of events that help cancer develop and grow.

In a news release Annette Atkins, a co-author of the study, says there is a strong connection between bile acid and cancer growth:

“We knew that high-fat diets and bile acids were both risk factors for cancer, but we weren’t expecting to find they were both affecting FXR in intestinal stem cells.”

So next time you are thinking about having that double bacon cheese burger for lunch, you might go for the salad instead. Your gut will thank you. And it might just save your life.