Partners in health

From left to right: Heather Dahlenburg, Jan Nolta, Jeannine Logan White, Sheng Yang
From left to right: Heather Dahlenburg, staff research associate; Jan Nolta, director of the Stem Cell Program; Jeannine Logan White, advanced cell therapy project manager; Sheng Yang, graduate student, Bridges Program, Humboldt State University, October 18, 2019. (AJ Cheline/UC Davis)

At CIRM we are modest enough to know that we can’t do everything by ourselves. To succeed we need partners. And in UC Davis we have a terrific partner. The work they do in advancing stem cell research is exciting and really promising. But it’s not just the science that makes them so special. It’s also their compassion and commitment to caring for patients.

What follows is an excerpt from an article by Lisa Howard on the work they do at UC Davis. When you read it you’ll see why we are honored to be a part of this research.

Gene therapy research at UC Davis

UC Davis’ commitment to stem cell and gene therapy research dates back more than a decade.

In 2010, with major support from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), UC Davis launched the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, which includes research facilities as well as a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility.

In 2016, led by Fred Meyers, a professor in the School of Medicine, UC Davis launched the Center for Precision Medicine and Data Sciences, bringing together innovations such as genomics and biomedical data sciences to create individualized treatments for patients.

Last year, the university launched the Gene Therapy Center, part of the IMPACT Center program.

Led by Jan Nolta, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy and the director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, the new center leverages UC Davis’ network of expert researchers, facilities and equipment to establish a center of excellence aimed at developing lifelong cures for diseases.

Nolta began her career at the University of Southern California working with Donald B. Kohn on a cure for bubble baby disease, a condition in which babies are born without an immune system. The blood stem cell gene therapy has cured more than 50 babies to date.

Work at the UC Davis Gene Therapy Center targets disorders that potentially can be treated through gene replacement, editing or augmentation.

“The sectors that make up the core of our center stretch out across campus,” said Nolta. “We work with the MIND Institute a lot. We work with the bioengineering and genetics departments, and with the Cancer Center and the Center for Precision Medicine and Data Sciences.”

A recent UC Davis stem cell study shows a potential breakthrough for healing diabetic foot ulcers with a bioengineered scaffold made up of human mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Another recent study revealed that blocking an enzyme linked with inflammation enables stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue. A cell gene therapy study demonstrated restored enzyme activity in Tay-Sachs disease affected cells in humanized mouse models.

Several cell and gene therapies have progressed to the point that ongoing clinical trials are being conducted at UC Davis for diseases, including sickle-cell anemia, retinopathy, muscle injury, dysphasia, advanced cancer, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, among others.

“Some promising and exciting research right now at the Gene Therapy Center comes from work with hematopoietic stem cells and with viral vector delivery,” said Nolta.

Hematopoietic stem cells give rise to other blood cells. A multi-institutional Phase I clinical trial using hematopoietic stem cells to treat HIV-lymphoma patients is currently underway at UC Davis.

.Joseph Anderson

Joseph Anderson

“We are genetically engineering a patient’s own blood stem cells with genes that block HIV infection,” said Joseph Anderson, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Internal Medicine. The clinical trial is a collaboration with Mehrdad Abedi, the lead principal investigator.

“When the patients receive the modified stem cells, any new immune system cell, like T-cell or macrophage, that is derived from one of these stem cells, will contain the HIV-resistant genes and block further infection,” said Anderson.

He explained that an added benefit with the unique therapy is that it contains an additional gene that “tags” the stem cells. “We are able to purify the HIV-resistant cells prior to transplantation, thus enriching for a more protective cell population.

Kyle David Fink

Kyle David Fink

Kyle David Fink, an assistant professor of neurology at UC Davis, is affiliated with the Stem Cell Program and Institute for Regenerative Cures. His lab is focused on leveraging institutional expertise to bring curative therapies to rare, genetically linked neurological disorders.

“We are developing novel therapeutics targeted to the underlying genetic condition for diseases such as CDKL5 deficiency disorder, Angelman, Jordan and Rett syndromes, and Juvenile Huntington’s disease,” said Fink.

The lab is developing therapies to target the underlying genetic condition using DNA-binding domains to modify gene expression in therapeutically relevant ways. They are also creating novel delivery platforms to allow these therapeutics to reach their intended target: the brain.

“The hope is that these highly innovative methods will speed up the progress of bringing therapies to these rare neurodegenerative disease communities,” said Fink.Jasmine Carter, a graduate research assistant at the UC Davis Stem Cell Program.

Jasmine Carter, a graduate research assistant at the UC Davis Stem Cell Program, October 18, 2019. (AJ Cheline/UC Davis)

Developing potential lifetime cures

Among Nolta’s concerns is how expensive gene therapy treatments can be.

“Some of the therapies cost half a million dollars and that’s simply not available to everyone. If you are someone with no insurance or someone on Medicare, which reimburses about 65 percent, it’s harder for you to get these life-saving therapies,” said Nolta.

To help address that for cancer patients at UC Davis, Nolta has set up a team known as the “CAR T Team.”

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy in which a patient’s own immune cells are reprogrammed to attack a specific protein found in cancer cells.

“We can develop our own homegrown CAR T-cells,” said Nolta. “We can use our own good manufacturing facility to genetically engineer treatments specifically for our UC Davis patients.”

Although safely developing stem cell treatments can be painfully slow for patients and their families hoping for cures, Nolta sees progress every day. She envisions a time when gene therapy treatments are no longer considered experimental and doctors will simply be able to prescribe them to their patients.

“And the beauty of the therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient,” said Nolta.

Battling COVID and turning back the clock on stem cell funding

Coronavirus

Battling the virus that causes COVID-19 is something that is top of everyone’s mind right now. That’s why CIRM is funding 17 different projects targeting the virus. But one of the most valuable tools in helping develop vaccines against a wide variety of diseases in the past is now coming under threat. We’ll talk about both issues in a live broadcast we’re holding on Wednesday, October 14th at noon (PDT).

That date is significant because it’s Stem Cell Awareness Day and we thought it appropriate to host a meeting looking at two of the most important issues facing the field.

The first part of the event will focus on the 17 projects that CIRM is funding that target COVID-19. This includes three clinical trials aiming to treat people who have been infected with the virus and are experiencing some of the more severe effects, such as damaged lungs.

We’ll also look at some of the earlier stage research that includes:

  • Work to help develop a vaccine
  • Using muscle stem cells to help repair damage to the diaphragm in patients who have spent an extended period on a ventilator
  • Boosting immune system cells to help fight the virus

The second part of the event will look at ways that funding for stem cell research at the federal level is once again coming into question. The federal government has already imposed new restrictions on funding for fetal tissue research, and now there are efforts in Congress to restrict funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The impacts could be significant. Fetal tissue has been used for decades to help develop some of the most important vaccines used today including rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles. They have also been used to make approved drugs against diseases including hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis.

We’ll look at some of the reasons why we are seeing these potential restrictions on the medical research and what impact they could have on the ability to develop new treatments for the coronavirus and other deadly diseases.

You can watch the CIRM Stem Cell Awareness Day live event by going here: https://www.youtube.com/c/CIRMTV/videos at noon on Wednesday, October 14th.

Feel free to share news about this event with anyone you think might be interested.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Perseverance: from theory to therapy. Our story over the last year – and a half

Some of the stars of our Annual Report

It’s been a long time coming. Eighteen months to be precise. Which is a peculiarly long time for an Annual Report. The world is certainly a very different place today than when we started, and yet our core mission hasn’t changed at all, except to spring into action to make our own contribution to fighting the coronavirus.

This latest CIRM Annual Reportcovers 2019 through June 30, 2020. Why? Well, as you probably know we are running out of money and could be funding our last new awards by the end of this year. So, we wanted to produce as complete a picture of our achievements as we could – keeping in mind that we might not be around to produce a report next year.

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego physician and researcher

It’s a pretty jam-packed report. It covers everything from the 14 new clinical trials we have funded this year, including three specifically focused on COVID-19. It looks at the extraordinary researchers that we fund and the progress they have made, and the billions of additional dollars our funding has helped leverage for California. But at the heart of it, and at the heart of everything we do, are the patients. They’re the reason we are here. They are the reason we do what we do.

Byron Jenkins, former Naval fighter pilot who battled back from his own fight with multiple myeloma

There are stories of people like Byron Jenkins who almost died from multiple myeloma but is now back leading a full, active life with his family thanks to a CIRM-funded therapy with Poseida. There is Jordan Janz, a young man who once depended on taking 56 pills a day to keep his rare disease, cystinosis, under control but is now hoping a stem cell therapy developed by Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego will make that something of the past.

Jordan Janz and Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

These individuals are remarkable on so many levels, not the least because they were willing to be among the first people ever to try these therapies. They are pioneers in every sense of the word.

Sneha Santosh, former CIRM Bridges student and now a researcher with Novo Nordisk

There is a lot of information in the report, charting the work we have done over the last 18 months. But it’s also a celebration of everyone who made it possible, and our way of saying thank you to the people of California who gave us this incredible honor and opportunity to do this work.

We hope you enjoy it.

Promising results from CIRM-funded projects

Severe Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-1 (LAD-1) is a rare condition that causes the immune system to malfunction and reduces its ability to fight off viruses and bacteria. Over time the repeated infections can take a heavy toll on the body and dramatically shorten a person’s life. But now a therapy, developed by Rocket Pharmaceuticals, is showing promise in helping people with this disorder.

The therapy, called RP-L201, targets white blood cells called neutrophils which ordinarily attack and destroy invading particles. In people with LAD-1 their neutrophils are dangerously low. That’s why the new data about this treatment is so encouraging.

In a news release, Jonathan Schwartz, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of Rocket, says early results in the CIRM-funded clinical trial, show great promise:

“Patients with severe LAD-I have neutrophil CD18 expression of less than 2% of normal, with extremely high mortality in early childhood. In this first patient, an increase to 47% CD18 expression sustained over six months demonstrates that RP-L201 has the potential to correct the neutrophil deficiency that is the hallmark of LAD-I. We are also pleased with the continued visible improvement of multiple disease-related skin lesions. The second patient has recently been treated, and we look forward to completing the Phase 1 portion of the registrational trial for this program.”

The results were released at the 23rd Annual Meeting of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy.

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These microscopic images show gene expression in muscle stem and progenitor cells as they mature from early development to adulthood (left to right). As part of this process, the cells switch from actively expressing one key gene (green) to another (violet); this is accompanied by the growth of muscle fibers (red).
Photo courtesy: Cell Stem Cell/UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

When you are going on a road-trip you need a map to help you find your way. It’s the same with stem cell research. If you are going to develop a new way to treat devastating muscle diseases, you need to have a map to show you how to build new muscle stem cells. And that’s what researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA – with help from CIRM funding – have done.

The team took muscle progenitor cells – which show what’s happening in development before a baby is born – and compared them to muscle stem cells – which control muscle development after a baby is born. That enabled them to identify which genes are active at what stage of development.

In a news release, April Pyle, senior author of the paper, says this could open the door to new therapies for a variety of conditions:

“Muscle loss due to aging or disease is often the result of dysfunctional muscle stem cells. This map identifies the precise gene networks present in muscle progenitor and stem cells across development, which is essential to developing methods to generate these cells in a dish to treat muscle disorders.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Study shows that exercise rejuvenates muscle stem cells of old mice

Dr. Thomas Rando, Stanford University
Image Credit: Steve Fisch/Stanford University Website

While we’re all at home and practicing social distancing during this global pandemic, it has become a challenge to get in daily exercise. Aside from outward physical appearance, what other benefits does exercise hold? Dr. Thomas Rando and his team at Stanford University explored this question in more detail in a CIRM supported animal study.

The Stanford research team found that exercise played a key role in restoring the youthful properties in the muscle stem cells of old mice. Muscle stem cells play an important role in tissue regeneration. They are usually on standby alongside muscle fibers in a resting state known as quiescence until called upon to repair damage.

For this study, the researchers wanted to see if voluntary exercise had an effect on the muscle stem cells in mice. Older mice that were 20 months old, the equivalent of 60-70 human years, were given an exercise wheel where they were allowed to run at will. Younger mice that were 3-4 months old, the equivalent of 20-30 human years, were also given an exercise wheel and allowed to run at will. A separate group of younger and older mice were given a wheel that didn’t rotate to compare them with the groups of mice that exercised.

They found that the older animals that had exercised regularly were significantly better at repairing muscle damage compared to their counterparts that did not exercise. However, this exercise benefit was not observed between the younger group of mice.

The researchers also transplanted the muscle stem cells from the older mice that had exercised into younger mice that had not exercised. They found that the muscle stem cells from the older mice contributed more to the repair process than did those from the non-exercising mice.

What was also surprising is that injecting blood from an old mouse that had exercised into an old mouse that hadn’t created a similar benefit in the muscle stem cells. This finding suggests that exercise simulates the production of some factors that then circulate in the blood and enhance the function of older stem cells.

Lastly, the researchers were ably to identify a molecular pathway that activates the resting muscle stem cells in response to damage.

In a press release, Dr. Rando discusses how this discovery could potentially lead to the development of a drug that could rejuvenate muscle stem cells.

“If we could develop a drug that mimics this effect, we may be able to experience the benefit without having to do months of exercise.”

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

Deep dive into muscle repair yields new strategies to combat Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Researchers at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) reported new findings this week that may lead to novel therapeutic strategies for people suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). DMD, a muscle-wasting disease that affects 1 in 7250 males aged 5 to 24 years in the United States, is caused by a genetic mutation leading to the lack of a protein called dystrophin. Without dystrophin, muscle cells become fragile and are easily damaged. Instead of self-repair, the muscles are replaced by scar tissue, a process called fibrosis that leads to muscle degeneration and wasting.

DMD_KhanAcademy

Dystrophin, a protein that maintains the structural integrity of muscle fibers, is missing in people with DMD. Image credit: Khan Academy

Boys with DMD first show signs of muscle weakness between ages 3-5 and often stop walking by the time they’re teenagers. Eventually the muscles critical for breathing and heart function stop working. Average life expectancy is 26 and there is no cure.

The SBP scientists are aiming to treat DMD by boosting muscle repair in affected individuals. But to do that, they sought to better understand how muscle regeneration works in the first place. In the current study, they focused their efforts on so-called fibro/adipogenic precursor (FAP) cells which, in response to acute injury, appear to play a role in stimulating muscle stem cells to divide and replace damaged muscle in healthy individuals. But FAPs are also implicated in the muscle wasting and scarring that’s seen in DMD.

By examining the gene activity of single FAP cells from mouse models of acute injury and DMD, the researchers identified a sub-population of FAP cells (sub-FAPs). Further study of these sub-FAPs showed that during early stages of muscle regeneration, these cells promote muscle stem cell activation but then at later stages, sub-FAPs – identified by a cell surface protein called Vcam1 – stimulate fibrosis. It turns out that during healthy acute muscle injury, the sub-FAPs with cell-surface Vcam1 protein are readily eaten up and removed by immune cells thereby avoiding muscle fibrosis. But in the DMD mouse model, removal of these sub-FAPs is impaired and instead collagen deposits and muscle fibrosis occur which are hallmarks of the progressive degeneration seen in DMD.

Barbora Malecova, Ph.D., a first author of the study, explained the implications of these results in a press release:

“This study elucidates the cellular and molecular pathogenesis of muscular dystrophy. These results indicate that removing or modulating the activity of Vcam1-positive sub-FAPs, which promote fibrosis, could be an effective treatment for DMD.”

The lab, led by Pier Lorenzo Puri, M.D., next will explore the possibility of finding drugs that target the Vcam1 sub-FAPs which in turn could help prevent fibrosis in DMD.

The study, funded in part by CIRM, appears in Nature Communications. CIRM is also funding a Phase 2 clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy that aims to improve the life-threatening heart muscle degeneration that occurs in DMD patients.

The Five Types of Stem Cells

When I give an “Intro to Stem Cells” presentation to, say, high school students or to a local Rotary Club, I begin by explaining that there are three main types of stem cells: (1) embryonic stem cells (ESCs) (2) adult stem cells and (3) induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Well, like most things in science, it’s actually not that simple.

To delve a little deeper into the details of characterizing stem cells, I recommend checking out a video animation produced by BioInformant, a stem cell market research company. The video is introduced in a blog, “Do you know the 5 types of stem cells?” by Cade Hildreth, BioInformant’s founder and president.

Stem-Cell-Types

Image credit: BioInformant

Hildreth’s list categorizes stem cells by the extent of each type’s shape-shifting abilities. So while we sometimes place ESCs and iPSCs in different buckets because the methods for obtaining them are very different, in this list, they both belong to the pluripotent stem cell type. Pluri (“many”) – potent (“potential”) refers to the ability of both stem cell types to specialize into all of the cell types in the body. They can’t, though, make the cells of the placenta and other extra-embryonic cells too. Those ultimate blank-slate stem cells are called toti (“total”) – potent (“potential”).

When it comes to describing adult stem cells in my talks, I often lump blood stem cells together with muscle stem cells because they are stem cells that are present within us throughout life. But based on their ability to mature into specialized cells, these two stem cell types fall into two different categories in Hildreth’s list:  blood stem cells which can specialize into closely related cell types – the various cell types found in the blood – are considered “oligopotent” while muscle stem cells are “unipotent” because the can only mature into one type of cell, a muscle cell.

For more details on the five types of stem cells based on their potential to specialize, head over to the BioInformant blog. And scroll to the very bottom for the video animation which can also viewed on FaceBook.

Stem Cell Roundup: Artificial Embryos to Study Miscarriage and ALS Insight – Muscle Repair Cells Go Rogue

Stem Cell Image of the Week: Artificial embryos for studying miscarriage (Adonica Shaw)

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Mouse embryos artificially generated by combining three types of stem cells.
Image: University of Cambridge.

This week’s stem cell image of the week comes from a team of researchers from The University of Cambridge who published research in Nature Cell Biology earlier this week indicating they’d achieved a breakthrough in stem cell research that resulted in the generation of a key developmental step that’d never before been achieved when trying to generate an artificial embryo.

To create the artificial embryo, the scientists combined mouse embryonic stem cells with two other types of stem cells that are present in the very earliest stages of embryo development. The reseachers grew the three stem cell types into a dish and coaxed them into simulating a process called gastrulation – one of the very first events that happens during a creature’s development in which the early embryo begins reorganizing into more and more complex multilayer organ structures.

In an interview with The Next Web (TNW), Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who led the research team, says:

”Our artificial embryos underwent the most important event in life in the culture dish. They are now extremely close to real embryos. To develop further, they would have to implant into the body of the mother or an artificial placenta.”

The goal of this research isn’t to create mice on demand. Its purpose is to gain insights into early life development. And that could lead to a giant leap in our understanding of what happens during the period in a woman’s pregnancy where the risk of miscarriage is highest.

According to professor Zernicka-Goetz,

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Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, PhD

“We can also now try to apply this to the equivalent human stem cell types and so study the very earliest events in human embryo development without actually having to use natural human embryos.The early stages of embryo development are when a large proportion of pregnancies are lost and yet it is a stage that we know very little about. Now we have a way of simulating embryonic development in the culture dish, so it should be possible to understand exactly what is going on during this remarkable period in an embryo’s life, and why sometimes this process fails.”

Muscle repair cells go rogue – a possible drug target for ALS?
Call it a case of a good cell gone bad. This week researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, report in Nature Cell Biology that fibro-adipogenic progenitors (FAPs) – cells that are critical in coordinating the repair of torn muscles – can turn rogue, causing muscles to wither and scar. This “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hype” discovery may lead to novel treatments for a number of incurable disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and spinal cord injury.

drjekyllmrhy

Senior author Pier Lorenzo Puri, M.D. (right) and co-first author Luca Madaro, Ph.D. Credit: Fondazione Santa Lucia IRCCS

When muscle is strained, whether due to an acute injury or even weight-lighting, a consistent order of events occurs within the muscle. FAB cells enter the muscle tissue after immune cells called macrophages come in and gobble up dead tissue but before muscle stem cells are stimulated to regenerate the lost muscle. However, to the researchers’ surprise, something entirely different happens in the case of neuromuscular disorders like ALS where nerve signal connections to the muscles degenerate.

Once nerves are no longer attached to muscle and stop sending movement signals from the brain, the macrophages don’t infiltrate the muscle and instead the FAPs pile up in the muscle and never leave. And as a result, muscle stem cells are never activated. In ALS patients, this cellular train crash leads to progressive loss of muscle control to move the limbs and ultimately even to breathe.

The promising news from these findings, which were funded in part by CIRM, is that the team identified of an out-of-whack cell signaling pathway that is responsible for the breakdown in the rogue function of the FAP cells. The researchers hope further studies of this pathway’s role in muscle degeneration may lead to novel therapies and disease-screening technologies for ALS and other motor neuron diseases.

A scalable, clinic-friendly recipe for converting skin cells to muscle cells

Way back in 1987, about two decades before Shinya Yamanaka would go on to identify four proteins that can reprogram skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), Harold Weintraub’s lab identified the first “master control” protein, MyoD, which can directly convert a skin cell into a muscle cell. Though MyoD opened up new approaches for teasing out the molecular mechanisms of a cell’s identity, it did not produce therapeutic paths for replacing muscle damaged by disease and injury.

That’s because MyoD-generated muscle cells are not amenable to a clinical setting. For a cell therapy to be viable, you need to manufacture large amounts of your product to treat many people. But these MyoD cells do not grow well enough to be effective to serve as a cell replacement therapy. Generating iPSC-derived muscle cells provides the potential of overcoming this limitation but the capacity of the embryonic stem cell-like iPSC for unlimited growth carries a risk of forming tumors after the transplanting iPSC-derived cell therapies into the muscle.

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This image shows iMPCs stained for markers of muscle stem, progenitor and differentiated cells. iMPCs recapitulate muscle differentiation in a dish. Credit: Ori Bar-Nur and Mattia Gerli

A recent study in Stem Cell Reports, by Konrad Hochedlinger’s lab at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, may provide a work around. The team came up with a recipe that calls for the temporary activation of MyoD in mouse skin cells, along with the addition of three molecules that boost cell reprogramming. The result? Cells they dubbed induced myogenic progenitor cells, or iMPCs, that can make self-sustaining copies of themselves and can be scaled up for manufacturing purposes. On top of that, they show that these iMPCs carry the hallmarks of muscle stem cells and generate muscle fibers when transplanted into mice with leg injuries without signs of tumor formation.

A lot of work still remains to be done, like confirming that these iMPCs truly have the same characteristics as muscle stem cells. But if everything pans out, the potential applications for people suffering from various muscle disorders and injuries is very exciting, as co-first author Mattia FM Gerli, PhD points out in a press release:

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Mattia FM Gerli, PhD

“Patient-specific iMPCs could be used for personalized medicine by treating patients with their own genetically matched cells. If disease-causing mutations are known, as is the case in many muscular dystrophies, one could in principle repair the mutation in iMPCs prior to transplantation of the corrected cells back into the patient.”

Researchers find connection between aging muscles and mutations in stem cells

It’s a humbling fact of life that our muscles decline as we age which is why you didn’t see any 50-year-olds competing for Olympic Gold in figure skating at the 2018 Winter Games.

You can blame your muscle stem cells for this. Also called satellite cells, these adult stem cells lie mostly dormant in muscle tissue until, in response to exercise or injury, they begin to divide, specialize and replenish damaged muscle cells. But, this restorative function declines over time diminishing the ability of aging muscle stem cells to grow new muscle, and in turn, leading to a gradual deterioration in strength and agility.

muscle stem cell

Muscle stem cell (pink with green outline) sits along a muscle fiber. Image: Michael Rudnicki/OIRM

While this connection between aging muscle and stem cells has been well-known, the underlying reasons are less well understood. However, a recent Nature Communications study by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden makes an important inroad: muscle stem cells from healthy, older individuals have a surprising number of genetic mutations compared to their younger counterparts.

To carry out the comparison, the researchers isolated muscle stem cells from muscle biopsies taken from groups of young (21-24 yrs) and more senior (68-75 yrs) healthy adults. Single cell DNA sequencing (which creates a genetic blueprint for individual cells) showed that the older stem cells had accumulated 2 to 3 times more mutations in genes that are active in the muscle stem cells. This higher “burden” of mutations also appeared to impair cell function: in the older group, those stem cells with higher numbers of mutations had a lower capacity to divide and specialize into certain types of muscle cells. The younger stem cells did not show this behavior suggesting they are better protected from these mutations, as team lead, Professor Maria Eriksson, explained in a press release:

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Maria Eriksson. Photo: Ulf Sirborn

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs.”

 

 

In addition to possible drug interventions, Dr. Eriksson is also interested in evaluating the role of exercise to counteract the effects of these mutations:

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programs, particularly those designed for an aging population.”