Using stem cells to take an inside approach to fixing damaged livers

Often on the Stem Cellar we write about work that is in a clinical trial. But getting research to that stage takes years and years of dedicated work. Over the next few months we are going to profile some of the scientists we fund who are doing Discovery, or early stage research, to highlight the importance of this work in developing the treatments that could ultimately save lives.

 This first profile is by Pat Olson, Ph.D., CIRM’s Vice President of Discovery & Translation

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Most of us take our liver for granted.  We don’t think about the fact that our liver carries out more than 500 functions in our bodies such as modifying and removing toxins, contributing to digestion and energy production, and making substances that help our blood to clot.  Without a liver we probably wouldn’t live more than a few days.

Our liver typically functions well but certain toxins, viral infections, long-term excess alcohol consumption and metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes can have devastating effects on it.  Under these conditions, functional liver cells, called hepatocytes, die and are replaced with cells called myofibroblasts.  Myofibroblasts are cells that secrete excess collagen leading to fibrosis, a form of scarring, throughout the liver.  Eventually, a liver transplant is required but the number of donor livers available for transplant is small and the number of persons needing a functional liver is large.  Every year in the United States,  around 6,000 patients receive a new liver and more than 35,000 patients die of liver disease.

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Dr. Holger Willenbring

Dr. Holger Willenbring, a physician scientist at UCSF, is one of the CIRM-funded researchers pursuing a stem cell/regenerative medicine approach to discover a treatment for patients with severe liver disease.  There are significant challenges to treating liver disease including getting fully multi-functional hepatocytes and getting them to engraft and/or grow sufficiently to achieve adequate mass for necessary liver functions.

In previous CIRM–funded discovery research, Dr. Willenbring and his team showed that they could partially reprogram human fibroblasts (the most common cell found in connective tissue) and then turn them into immature hepatocytes.  (see our Spotlight on Liver Disease video from 2012 featuring Dr. Willenbring.) These immature hepatocytes, when transplanted into an immune-deficient mouse model of human liver failure, were shown to mature over time into hepatocytes that were comparable to normal human hepatocytes both in their gene expression and their function.

This was an important finding in that it suggested that the liver environment in a living animal (in vivo), rather than in a test tube (in vitro) in the laboratory, is important for full multi-functional maturation of hepatocytes.  The study also showed that these transplanted immature human hepatocytes could proliferate and improve the survival of this mouse model of chronic human liver disease.  But, even though this model was designed to emphasizes the growth of functional human hepatocytes, the number of cells generated was not great enough to suggest that transplantation could be avoided

A new approach

Dr. Willenbring and his team are now taking the novel approach of direct reprogramming inside the mouse.  With this approach, he seeks to avoid the challenge of low engraftment and proliferation of transplanted hepatocytes generated in the lab and transplanted. Instead, they aim to take advantage of the large number of myofibroblasts in the patient’s scarred liver by turning them directly into hepatocytes.

Recently, he and his team have shown proof-of principle that they can deliver genes to myofibroblasts and turn them into hepatocytes in a mouse. In addition these in vivo myofibroblasts-derived hepatocytes are multi-functional, and can multiply in number, and can even reverse fibrosis in a mouse with liver fibrosis.

From mice to men (women too)

Our latest round of funding for Dr. Willenbring has the goal of moving and extending these studies into human cells by improving the specificity and effectiveness of reprogramming of human myofibroblasts into hepatocytes inside the animal, rather than the lab.

He and his team will then conduct studies to test the therapeutic effectiveness and initial safety of this approach in preclinical models. The ultimate goal is to generate a potential therapy that could eventually provide hope for the 35,000 patients who die of liver disease each year in the US.

 

 

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Getting faster, working smarter: how changing the way we work is paying big dividends

This blog is part of the Month of CIRM series

Speeding up the way you do things isn’t always a good idea. Just ask someone who got a ticket for going 65mph in a 30mph zone. But at CIRM we have found that doing things at an accelerated pace is paying off in a big way.

When CIRM started back in 2004 we were, in many ways, a unique organization. That meant we pretty much had to build everything from scratch, creating our own ways of asking for applications, reviewing those applications, funding them etc. Fast forward ten years and it was clear that, as good a job as we did in those early days, there was room for improvement in the way we operated.

So we made some changes. Big changes.

We adopted as our mantra the phrase “operational excellence.” It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue but it does reflect what we were aiming for. The Business Dictionary defines operational excellence as:

 “A philosophy of the workplace where problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership results in the ongoing improvement in an organization.”

We didn’t want to just tinker with the way we worked, we wanted to reinvent every aspect of our operation. To do that we involved everyone in the operation. We held a series of meetings where everyone at CIRM, and I do mean everyone, was invited to join in and offer their ideas on how to improve our operation.

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The end result was CIRM 2.0. At the time we described it as “a radical overhaul” of the way we worked. That might have been an understatement. We increased the speed, frequency and volume of the programs we offered, making it easier and more predictable for researchers to apply to us for funding, and faster for them to get that funding if they were approved.

For example, before 2.0 it took almost two years to go from applying for funding for a clinical trial to actually getting that funding. Today it takes around 120 days.

But it’s not just about speed. It’s also about working smarter. In the past if a researcher’s application for funding for a clinical trial failed it could be another 12 months before they got a chance to apply again. With many diseases 12 months could be a death sentence. So we changed the rules. Now if you have a project ready for a clinical trial you can apply any time. And instead of recommending or not recommending a project, basically voting it up or down, our independent panel of expert reviewers now give researchers with good but not great applications constructive feedback, enabling the researchers to make the changes needed to improve their project, and reapply for funding within 30 days.

This has not only increased the number of applications for clinical trials, it has also increased the quality of those applications.

We made similar changes in our Discovery and Translation programs. Increasing the frequency of each award, making it easier for researchers to know when the next round of funding was coming up. And we added incentives to encourage researchers to move successful projects on to the next level. We wanted to create a pipeline of the most promising projects steadily moving towards the clinic.

The motivation to do this comes from our patients. At CIRM we are in the time business. Many of the patients who are looking to stem cells to help them don’t have the luxury of time; they are rapidly running out of it. So we have a responsibility to do all we can to reduce the amount of time it takes to get the most promising therapies to them, without in any way compromising safety and jeopardizing their health.

By the end of 2016 those changes were very clearly paying dividends as we increased the frequency of reviews and the number of projects we reviewed but at the same time decreased the amount of time it took us to do all that.

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But we are not done yet. We have done a good job of improving the way we work. But there is always room to be even better, to go even faster and be more efficient.

We are not done accelerating. Not by a long shot.

Attractive new regenerative medicine tool uses magnets to shape and stimulate stem cells

The ultimate goal of tissue engineers who work in the regenerative medicine field is to replace damaged or diseased organs with new ones built from stem cells. To accomplish the feat, these researchers are developing new tools and techniques to manipulate and specialize stem cells into three dimensional structures. Some popular methods – which we’ve blogged about often – include the use of bioscaffolds as well as 3D bioprinting . This week, a research team at the Laboratoire Matière et Systèmes Complexes in France has developed an attractive (pun intended!) new tool that uses magnetized stem cells to both manipulate and stimulate the cells into 3D shapes.

The magnetic stretcher: this all-in-one system can both form and mechanically stimulate an aggregate of magnetized embryonic stem cells. Image: © Claire Wilhelm / Laboratoire Matière et systèmes complexes (CNRS/Université Paris Diderot).

The study, reported on Monday in Nature Communications, used embryonic stem cells which were incubated with magnetic nanoparticles. The cells readily take up the nanoparticles which allowed the scientists to group the individual cells using magnets. But first the team needed to show that the nanoparticles had no negative effects on the cells. Comparing the iron nanoparticle-laden stem cells to iron-free cells showed no difference in the cells’ survival and their ability to divide.

It was also important to make sure the introduction of nanoparticles had no impact on the stem cell’s pluripotency; that is, its ability to maintain its unspecialized state. A visual check of the cells through a microscope showed that they grew together in rounded clumps, a hallmark of undifferentiated, pluripotent cells. In addition, the key genes that bestow pluripotency onto embryonic stem cells were still active after the addition of the nanoparticles.

The stem cells’ ability to mature into various cell types, like heart muscle or nerve, is key to any successful tissue engineering project. So, the next important assessment of these magnetized cells was to make sure their ability to differentiate, or specialize, was still intact. The typical first step to differentiating embryonic stem cells is to form so-called embryoid bodies (EBs), which are 3D groups of pluripotent stem cells which begin differentiating into the three fundamental tissues types: mesoderm (gives rise to muscle, bone, fat), ectoderm (gives rise to nerve, hair, eyes), endoderm (gives rise to intestines, liver). Using a popular technique, called the hanging drop method, the team showed that the presence of the nanoparticles did not negatively affect embryoid body formation.

In fact, the use of magnets to form embryoid bodies provided several advantages over the hanging drop method. The hanging drop technique requires multiple, time-consuming steps and the resulting embryoid bodies tend to be inconsistent in size and shape. Use of the magnets, on the other hand, instantaneously assembled the stem cells into consistently round aggregates. And by precisely adjusting the magnetic force used, the scientists could also vary the size of the embyroid body, which is an important variable to control since the embryoid size can impact its ability to differentiate.

While the magnet used to form the embryoid bodies was kept stable, the researchers included another magnet which they could move. With this setup, the team was able to stretch and shape the group of cells without the need of scaffolds or the need to physically contact the cells. Several previous studies, using flat, 2-dimensional petri dishes, have shown that the stiffness and flexibility of the dish can stimulate gene activity by affecting cell shape. In this study, the researchers found that when the magnet was moved in a cyclical pattern that imitates the rhythm of a heart beat, the embryoid bodies were, if you can believe it, nudged toward a heart muscle fate. A press release by France’s National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), which funded the study, explained the big picture implications of this new technique:

“This “all-in-one” approach, which makes it possible to build and manipulate tissue within the same system, could thus prove to be a powerful tool both for biophysical studies and tissue engineering.”

Protein that turns normal cells into cancer stem cells offers target to fight colon cancer

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Colon cancer: Photo courtesy WebMD

Colon cancer is a global killer. Each year more than one million people worldwide are diagnosed with it; more than half a million die from it. If diagnosed early enough the standard treatment involves surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or targeted drug therapy to destroy the tumors. In many cases this may work. But in some cases, while this approach helps put people in remission, eventually the cancer returns, spreads throughout the body, and ultimately proves fatal.

Now researchers may have identified a protein that causes normal cells to become cancerous, and turn into cancer stem cells (CSCs). This discovery could help provide a new target for anti-cancer therapies.

Cancer stem cells are devilishly tricky. While most cancer cells are killed by chemotherapy or other therapies, cancer stem cells are able to lie dormant and hide, then emerge later to grow and spread, causing the person to relapse and the cancer to return.

In a study published in Nature Research’s Scientific Reports, researchers at SU Health New Orleans School of Medicine and Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center identified a protein, called SATB2, that appears to act as an “on/off” switch for specific genes inside a cancer cell.

In normal, healthy colorectal tissue SATB2 is not active, but in colorectal cancer it is highly active, found in around 85 percent of tumors. So, working with mice, the researchers inserted extra copies of the SATB2 gene, which produced more SATB2 protein in normal colorectal tissue. They found that this produced profound changes in the cell, leading to uncontrolled cell growth. In effect it turned a normal cell into a cancer stem cell.

As the researchers state in their paper:

“These data suggest that SATB2 can transform normal colon epithelial cells to CSCs/progenitor-like cells which play significant roles in cancer initiation, promotion and metastasis.”

When the researchers took colorectal cancer cells and inhibited SATB2 they found that this not only suppressed the growth of the cancer and it’s ability to spread, it also prevented those cancer cells from becoming cancer stem cells.

In a news release about the study Dr. Rakesh Srivastava,  the senior author on the paper, said the findings are important:

“Since the SATB2 protein is highly expressed in the colorectal cell lines and tissues, it can be an attractive target for therapy, diagnosis and prognosis.”

Because SATB2 is found in other cancers too, such as breast cancer, these findings may hold significance for more than just colorectal cancer.

The next step is to repeat the study in mice that have been genetically modified to better reflect the way colon cancer shows up in people. The team hope this will not only confirm their findings, but also give them a deeper understanding of the role that SATB2 plays in cancer formation and spread.

CIRM weekly stem cell roundup: stomach bacteria & cancer; vitamin C may block leukemia; stem cells bring down a 6’2″ 246lb football player

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This is what your stomach glands looks like from the inside:  Credit: MPI for Infection Biology”

Stomach bacteria crank up stem cell renewal, may be link to gastric cancer (Todd Dubnicoff)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori, a type of bacteria that thrives in the harsh acidic conditions of the stomach. Data accumulated over the past few decades shows strong evidence that H. pylori infection increases the risk of stomach cancers. The underlying mechanisms of this link have remained unclear. But research published this week in Nature suggests that the bacteria cause stem cells located in the stomach lining to divide more frequently leading to an increased potential for cancerous growth.

Tumors need to make an initial foothold in a tissue in order to grow and spread. But the cells of our stomach lining are replaced every four days. So, how would H. pylori bacterial infection have time to induce a cancer? The research team – a collaboration between scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and Stanford University – asked that question and found that the bacteria are also able to penetrate down into the stomach glands and infect stem cells whose job it is to continually replenish the stomach lining.

Further analysis in mice revealed that two groups of stem cells exist in the stomach glands – one slowly dividing and one rapidly dividing population. Both stem cell populations respond similarly to an important signaling protein, called Wnt, that sustains stem cell renewal. But the team also discovered a second key stem cell signaling protein called R-spondin that is released by connective tissue underneath the stomach glands. H. pylori infection of these cells causes an increase in R-spondin which shuts down the slowly dividing stem cell population but cranks up the cell division of the rapidly dividing stem cells. First author, Dr. Michal Sigal, summed up in a press release how these results may point to stem cells as the link between bacterial infection and increased risk of stomach cancer:

“Since H. pylori causes life-long infections, the constant increase in stem cell divisions may be enough to explain the increased risk of carcinogenesis observed.”

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Vitamin C may have anti-blood cancer properties

Vitamin C is known to have a number of health benefits, from preventing scurvy to limiting the buildup of fatty plaque in your arteries. Now a new study says we might soon be able to add another benefit: it may be able to block the progression of leukemia and other blood cancers.

Researchers at the NYU School of Medicine focused their work on an enzyme called TET2. This is found in hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), the kind of stem cell typically found in bone marrow. The absence of TET2 is known to keep these HSCs in a pre-leukemic state; in effect priming the body to develop leukemia. The researchers showed that high doses of vitamin C can prevent, or even reverse that, by increasing the activity level of TET2.

In the study, in the journal Cell, they showed how they developed mice that could have their levels of TET2 increased or decreased. They then transplanted bone marrow with low levels of TET2 from those mice into healthy, normal mice. The healthy mice started to develop leukemia-like symptoms. However, when the researchers used high doses of vitamin C to restore the activity levels of TET2, they were able to halt the progression of the leukemia.

Now this doesn’t mean you should run out and get as much vitamin C as you can to help protect you against leukemia. In an article in The Scientist, Benjamin Neel, senior author of the study, says while vitamin C does have health benefits,  consuming large doses won’t do you much good:

“They’re unlikely to be a general anti-cancer therapy, and they really should be understood based on the molecular understanding of the many actions vitamin C has in cells.”

However, Neel says these findings do give scientists a new tool to help them target cells before they become leukemic.

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Bad toe forces Jordan Reed to take a knee: Photo courtesy FanRag Sports

Toeing the line: how unapproved stem cell treatment made matters worse for an NFL player  

American football players are tough. They have to be to withstand pounding tackles by 300lb men wearing pads and a helmet. But it wasn’t a crunching hit that took Washington Redskins player Jordan Reed out of the game; all it took to put the 6’2” 246 lb player on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list was a little stem cell injection.

Reed has had a lingering injury problem with the big toe on his left foot. So, during the off-season, he thought he would take care of the issue, and got a stem cell injection in the toe. It didn’t quite work the way he hoped.

In an interview with the Richmond Times Dispatch he said:

“That kind of flared it up a bit on me. Now I’m just letting it calm down before I get out there. I’ve just gotta take my time, let it heal and strengthen up, then get back out there.”

It’s not clear what kind of stem cells Reed got, if they were his own or from a donor. What is clear is that he is just the latest in a long line of athletes who have turned to stem cells to help repair or speed up recovery from an injury. These are treatments that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that have not been tested in a clinical trial to make sure they are both safe and effective.

In Reed’s case the problem seems to be a relatively minor one; his toe is expected to heal and he should be back in action before too long.

Stem cell researcher and avid blogger Dr. Paul Knoepfler wrote he is lucky, others who take a similar approach may not be:

“Fortunately, it sounds like Reed will be fine, but some people have much worse reactions to unproven stem cells than a sore toe, including blindness and tumors. Be careful out there!”

How mice and zebrafish are unlocking clues to repairing damaged hearts

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The Bee Gees, pioneers in trying to find ways to mend a broken heart. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

This may be the first time that the Australian pop group the Bee Gees have ever been featured in a blog about stem cell research, but in this case I think it’s appropriate. One of the Bee Gees biggest hits was “How can you mend a broken heart” and while it was a fine song, Barry and Robin Gibb (who wrote the song) never really came up with a viable answer.

Happily some researchers at the University of Southern California may succeed where Barry and Robin failed. In a study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, the USC team identify a gene that may help regenerate damaged heart tissue after a heart attack.

When babies are born they have a lot of a heart muscle cell called a mononuclear diploid cardiomyocyte or MNDCM for short. This cell type has powerful regenerative properties and so is able to rebuild heart muscle. However, as we get older we have less and less MNDCMs. By the time most of us are at an age where we are most likely to have a heart attack we are also most likely to have very few of these cells, and so have a limited ability to repair the damage.

Michaela Patterson, and her colleagues at USC, set out to find ways to change that. They found that in some adult mice less than 2 percent of their heart cells were MNDCMs, while other mice had a much higher percentage, around 10 percent. Not surprisingly the mice with the higher percentage of MNDCMs were better able to regenerate heart muscle after a heart attack or other injury.

So the USC team – with a little help from CIRM funding – dug a little deeper and did a genome-wide association study of these mice, that’s where they look at all the genetic variants in different individuals to see if they can spot common traits. They found one gene, Tnni3k, that seems to play a key role in generating MNDCMs.

Turning Tnni3K off in mice resulted in higher numbers of MNDCMs, increasing their ability to regenerate heart muscle. But when they activated Tnni3k in zebrafish it reduced the number of MNDCMs and impaired the fish’s ability to repair heart damage.

While it’s a long way from identifying something interesting in mice and zebrafish to seeing if it can be used to help people, Henry Sucov, the senior author on the study, says these findings represent an important first step in that direction:

“The activity of this gene, Tnni3k, can be modulated by small molecules, which could be developed into prescription drugs in the future. These small molecules could change the composition of the heart over time to contain more of these regenerative cells. This could improve the potential for regeneration in adult hearts, as a preventative strategy for those who may be at risk for heart failure.”

 

 

 

Stories that caught our eye: color me stem cells, delivering cell therapy with nanomagnets, and stem cell decisions

Nanomagnets: the future of targeted stem cell therapies? Your blood vessels are made up of tightly-packed endothelial cells. This barrier poses some big challenges for the delivery of drugs via the blood. While small molecules are able make their way through the small gaps in the blood vessel walls, larger drug molecules, including proteins and cells, are not able to penetrate the vessel to get therapies to diseased areas.

This week, researchers at Rice University report in Nature Communications on an ingenious technique using tiny magnets that may overcome this drug delivery problem.

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At left, the nanoparticles are evenly distributed among the microtubules that help give the cells their shape. At right, after a magnetic field is applied, the nanoparticles are pulled toward one end of the cells and change their shapes. Credit: Laboratory of Biomolecular Engineering and Nanomedicine/Rice University

Initial studies showed that adding magnetic nanoparticles to the endothelial cells and then applying a magnetic field affected the cells’ internal scaffolding, called microtubules. These structures are responsible for maintaining the tight cell to cell connections. The team took the studies a step further by growing the cells in specialized petri dishes containing tiny, tube-shaped channels. Applying a magnetic field to the cells caused the cell-cell junctions to form gaps, making the blood vessel structures leaky. Simply turning off the magnetic field closed up the gaps within a few hours.

Though a lot of research remains, the team aims to apply this on-demand induction of cell leakiness along with adding the magnetic nanoparticles to stem cell therapy products to help target the treatment to specific area. In a press release, team leader Dr. Gang Bao spoke about possible applications to arthritis therapy:

“The problem is how to accumulate therapeutic stem cells around the knee and keep them there. After injecting the nanoparticle-infused cells, we want to put an array of magnets around the knee to attract them.”

To differentiate or not differentiate: new insights During the body’s development, stem cells must differentiate, or specialize, into functional cells – like liver, heart, brain. But once that specialization occurs, the cells lose their pluripotency, or the ability to become any type of cell. So, stem cells must balance the need to differentiate with the need to make copies of itself to maintain an adequate supply of stem cells to complete the development process. And even after a fully formed baby is born, it’s still critical for adult stem cells to balance the need to regenerate damaged tissue versus stashing away a pool of stem cells in various organs for future regeneration and replacement of damaged or diseased tissues.

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Visualizing activation of Nanog gene activity (bright green spot) within cell nucleus. 
Image: Courtesy of Bony De Kumar, Ph.D., and Robb Krumlauf, Ph.D., Stowers Institute for Medical Research

A report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds evidence that the two separate processes – differentiation and pluripotency – directly communicate with each other as way to ensure a proper balance between the two states.

The study, carried out by researchers at Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, focused on the regulation of two genes: Nanog and Hox. Nanog is critical for maintaining a stem cell’s ability to become a specialized cell type. In fact, it’s one of the four genes initially used to reprogram adult cells back into induced pluripotent stem cells. The Hox gene family is responsible for generating a blueprint of the body plan in a developing embryo. Basically, the pattern of Hox gene activity helps generate the body plan, basically predetermining where the various body parts and organs will form.

Now, both Nanog and Hox proteins act by binding to DNA and turning on a cascade of other genes that ultimately maintain pluripotency or promote differentiation. By examining these other genes, the researchers were surprised to find that both Nanog and Hox were bound to both the pluripotency and differentiation genes. They also found that Nanog and Hox can directly inhibit each other. Taken together, these results suggest that exquisite control of both processes occurs cross regulation of gene activity.

Dr. Robb Krumlauf one of authors on the paper talked about the significance of the result in a press release:

“Over the past 10 to 20 years, biologists have shown that cells are actively assessing their environment, and that they have many fates they can choose. The regulatory loops we’ve found show how the dynamic nature of cells is being maintained.”

Color me stem cells Looking to improve your life and the life of those around you? Then we highly recommend you pay a visit to today’s issue of Right Turn, a regular Friday feature of  Signals, the official blog of CCRM, Canada’s public-private consortium supporting the development of regenerative medicine technologies.

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Collage sample of CCRM’s new coloring sheets. Image: copyright CCRM 2017

As part of an public outreach effort they have created four new coloring sheets that depict stem cells among other sciency topics. They’ve set up a DropBox link to download the pictures so you can get started right away.

Adult coloring has swept the nation as the hippest new pastime. And it’s not just a frivolous activity, as coloring has been shown to have many healthy benefits like reducing stressed and increasing creativity. Just watch any kid who colors. In fact, share these sheet with them, it’s intended for children too.

New stem cell technique gives brain support cells a starring role

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The Salk team. From left: Krishna Vadodaria, Lynne Moore, Carol Marchetto, Arianna Mei, Fred H. Gage, Callie Fredlender, Ruth Keithley, Ana Diniz Mendes. Photo courtesy Salk Institute

Astrocytes are some of the most common cells in the brain and central nervous system but they often get overlooked because they play a supporting role to the more glamorous neurons (even though they outnumber them around 50 to 1). But a new way of growing those astrocytes outside the brain could help pave the way for improved treatments for stroke, Alzheimer’s and other neurological problems.

Astrocytes – which get their name because of their star shape (Astron – Greek for “star” and “kyttaron” meaning cell) – have a number of key functions in the brain. They provide physical and metabolic support for neurons; they help supply energy and fuel to neurons; and they help with detoxification and injury repair, particularly in terms of reducing inflammation.

Studying these astrocytes in the lab has not been easy, however, because existing methods of producing them have been slow, cumbersome and not altogether effective at replicating their many functions.

Finding a better way

Now a team at the Salk Institute, led by CIRM-funded Professor Fred “Rusty” Gage, has developed a way of using stem cells to create astrocytes that is faster and more effective.

Their work is published in the journal Stem Cell Reports. In a news release, Gage says this is an important discovery:

“This work represents a big leap forward in our ability to model neurological disorders in a dish. Because inflammation is the common denominator in many brain disorders, better understanding astrocytes and their interactions with other cell types in the brain could provide important clues into what goes wrong in disease.”

Stylized microscopy image of an astrocyte (red) and neuron (green). (Salk Institute)

In a step by step process the Salk team used a series of chemicals, called growth factors, to help coax stem cells into becoming, first, generic brain cells, and ultimately astrocytes. These astrocytes not only behaved like the ones in our brain do, but they also have a particularly sensitive response to inflammation. This gives the team a powerful tool in helping develop new treatment to disorders of the brain.

But wait, there’s more!

As if that wasn’t enough, the researchers then used the same technique to create astrocytes from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – adult cells, such as skin, that have been re-engineered to have the ability to turn into any other kind of cell in the body. Those man-made astrocytes also showed the same characteristics as natural ones do.

Krishna Vadodaria, one of the lead authors on the paper, says having these iPSC-created astrocytes gives them a completely new tool to help explore brain development and disease, and hopefully develop new treatments for those diseases.

“The exciting thing about using iPSCs is that if we get tissue samples from people with diseases like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s or depression, we will be able to study how their astrocytes behave, and how they interact with neurons.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: update on Capricor’s heart attack trial; lithium on the brain; and how stem cells do math

Capricor ALLSTARToday our partners Capricor Therapeutics announced that its stem cell therapy for patients who have experienced a large heart attack is unlikely to meet one of its key goals, namely reducing the scar size in the heart 12 months after treatment.

The news came after analyzing results from patients at the halfway point of the trial, six months after their treatment in the Phase 2 ALLSTAR clinical trial which CIRM was funding. They found that there was no significant difference in the reduction in scarring on the heart for patients treated with donor heart-derived stem cells, compared to patients given a placebo.

Obviously this is disappointing news for everyone involved, but we know that not all clinical trials are going to be successful. CIRM supported this research because it clearly addressed an unmet medical need and because an earlier Phase 1 study had showed promise in helping prevent decline in heart function after a heart attack.

Yet even with this failure to repeat that promise in this trial,  we learned valuable lessons.

In a news release, Dr. Tim Henry, Director of the Division of Interventional Technologies in the Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a Co-Principal Investigator on the trial said:

“We are encouraged to see reductions in left ventricular volume measures in the CAP-1002 treated patients, an important indicator of reverse remodeling of the heart. These findings support the biological activity of CAP-1002.”

Capricor still has a clinical trial using CAP-1002 to treat boys and young men developing heart failure due to Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).

Lithium gives up its mood stabilizing secrets

As far back as the late 1800s, doctors have recognized that lithium can help people with mood disorders. For decades, this inexpensive drug has been an effective first line of treatment for bipolar disorder, a condition that causes extreme mood swings. And yet, scientists have never had a good handle on how it works. That is, until this week.

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Evan Snyder

Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a research team at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute have identified the molecular basis of the lithium’s benefit to bipolar patients.  Team lead Dr. Evan Snyder explained in a press release why his group’s discovery is so important for patients:

“Lithium has been used to treat bipolar disorder for generations, but up until now our lack of knowledge about why the therapy does or does not work for a particular patient led to unnecessary dosing and delayed finding an effective treatment. Further, its side effects are intolerable for many patients, limiting its use and creating an urgent need for more targeted drugs with minimal risks.”

The study, funded in part by CIRM, attempted to understand lithium’s beneficial effects by comparing cells from patient who respond to those who don’t (only about a third of patients are responders). Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) were generated from both groups of patients and then the cells were specialized into nerve cells that play a role in bipolar disorder. The team took an unbiased approach by looking for differences in proteins between the two sets of cells.

The team zeroed in on a protein called CRMP2 that was much less functional in the cells from the lithium-responsive patients. When lithium was added to these cells the disruption in CRMP2’s activity was fixed. Now that the team has identified the molecular location of lithium’s effects, they can now search for new drugs that do the same thing more effectively and with fewer side effects.

The stem cell: a biological calculator?

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Can stem cells do math?

Stem cells are pretty amazing critters but can they do math? The answer appears to be yes according to a fascinating study published this week in PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stem cells, like all cells, process information from the outside through different receptors that stick out from the cells’ outer membranes like a satellite TV dish. Protein growth factors bind those receptors which trigger a domino effect of protein activity inside the cell, called cell signaling, that transfers the initial receptor signal from one protein to another. Ultimately that cascade leads to the accumulation of specific proteins in the nucleus where they either turn on or off specific genes.

Intuition would tell you that the amount of gene activity in response to the cell signaling should correspond to the amount of protein that gets into the nucleus. And that’s been the prevailing view of scientists. But the current study by a Caltech research team debunks this idea. Using real-time video microscopy filming, the team captured cell signaling in individual cells; in this case they used an immature muscle cell called a myoblast.

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Behavior of cells over time after they have received a Tgf-beta signal. The brightness of the nuclei (circled in red) indicates how much Smad protein is present. This brightness varies from cell to cell, but the ratio of brightness after the signal to before the signal is about the same. Image: Goentoro lab, CalTech.

To their surprise the same amount of growth factor given to different myoblasts cells led to the accumulation of very different amounts of a protein called Smad3 in the cells’ nuclei, as much as a 40-fold difference across the cells. But after some number crunching, they discovered that dividing the amount of Smad3 after growth factor stimulation by the Smad3 amount before growth stimulation was similar in all the cells.

As team lead Dr. Lea Goentoro mentions in a press release, this result has some very important implications for studying human disease:

“Prior to this work, researchers trying to characterize the properties of a tumor might take a slice from it and measure the total amount of Smad in cells. Our results show that to understand these cells one must instead measure the change in Smad over time.”

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Free Patient Advocate Event in San Diego, and new clues on how to fix muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease

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Stem cell research is advancing so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. That’s one of the reasons we have our Friday roundup, to let you know about some fascinating research that came across our desk during the week that you might otherwise have missed.

Of course, another way to keep up with the latest in stem cell research is to join us for our free Patient Advocate Event at UC San Diego next Thursday, April 20th from 12-1pm.  We are going to talk about the progress being made in stem cell research, the problems we still face and need help in overcoming, and the prospects for the future.

We have four great speakers:

  • Catriona Jamieson, Director of the CIRM UC San Diego Alpha Stem Cell Clinic and an expert on cancers of the blood
  • Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of CIRM’s Board
  • Jennifer Briggs Braswell, Executive Director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center
  • David Higgins, Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s on the CIRM Board

We will give updates on the exciting work taking place at UCSD and the work that CIRM is funding. We have also set aside some time to get your thoughts on how we can improve the way we work and, of course, answer your questions.

What: Stem Cell Therapies and You: A Special Patient Advocate Event

When: Thursday, April 20th 12-1pm

Where: The Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, 2880 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037

Why: Because the people of California have a right to know how their money is helping change the face of regenerative medicine

Who: This event is FREE and open to everyone.

We have set up an EventBrite page for you to RSVP and let us know if you are coming. And, of course, feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested.

This is the first of a series of similar Patient Advocate Update meetings we plan on holding around California this year. We’ll have news on other locations and dates shortly.

 

Fixing a mutation that causes muscular dystrophy (Karen Ring)

It’s easy to take things for granted. Take your muscles for instance. How often do you think about them? (Don’t answer this if you’re a body builder). Daily? Monthly? I honestly don’t think much about my muscles unless I’ve injured them or if they’re sore from working out.

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Heart muscle cells (green) that don’t have dystrophin protein (Photo; UT Southwestern)

But there are people in this world who think about their muscles or their lack of them every day. They are patients with a muscle wasting disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). It’s the most common type of muscular dystrophy, and it affects mainly young boys – causing their muscles to progressively weaken to the point where they cannot walk or breathe on their own.

DMD is caused by mutations in the dystrophin gene. These mutations prevent muscle cells from making dystrophin protein, which is essential for maintaining muscle structure. Scientists are using gene editing technologies to find and fix these mutations in hopes of curing patients of DMD.

Last year, we blogged about a few of these studies where different teams of scientists corrected dystrophin mutations using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in human cells and in mice with DMD. One of these teams has recently followed up with a new study that builds upon these earlier findings.

Scientists from UT Southwestern are using an alternative form of the CRISPR gene editing complex to fix dystrophin mutations in both human cells and mice. This alternative CRISPR complex makes use of a different cutting enzyme, Cpf1, in place of the more traditionally used Cas9 protein. It’s a smaller protein that the scientists say can get into muscle cells more easily. Cpf1 also differs from Cas9 in what DNA nucleotide sequences it recognizes and latches onto, making it a new tool in the gene editing toolbox for scientists targeting DMD mutations.

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Gene-edited heart muscle cells (green) that now express dystrophin protein (Photo: UT Southwestern)

Using CRISPR/Cpf1, the scientists corrected the most commonly found dystrophin mutation in human induced pluripotent stem cells derived from DMD patients. They matured these corrected stem cells into heart muscle cells in the lab and found that they expressed the dystrophin protein and functioned like normal heart cells in a dish. CRISPR/Cpf1 also corrected mutations in DMD mice, which rescued dystrophin expression in their muscle tissues and some of the muscle wasting symptoms caused by the disease.

Because the dystrophin gene is one of the longest genes in our genome, it has more locations where DMD-causing mutations could occur. The scientists behind this study believe that CRISPR/Cpf1 offers a more flexible tool for targeting different dystrophin mutations and could potentially be used to develop an effective gene therapy for DMD.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Eric Olson, provided this conclusion about their research in a news release by EurekAlert:

“CRISPR-Cpf1 gene-editing can be applied to a vast number of mutations in the dystrophin gene. Our goal is to permanently correct the underlying genetic causes of this terrible disease, and this research brings us closer to realizing that end.”

 

A cellular traffic jam is the culprit behind Huntington’s disease (Todd Dubnicoff)

Back in the 1983, the scientific community cheered the first ever mapping of a genetic disease to a specific area on a human chromosome which led to the isolation of the disease gene in 1993. That disease was Huntington’s, an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that typically strikes in a person’s thirties and leads to death about 10 to 15 years later. Because no effective therapy existed for the disease, this discovery of Huntingtin, as the gene was named, was seen as a critical step toward a better understand of Huntington’s and an eventual cure.

But flash forward to 2017 and researchers are still foggy on how mutations in the Huntingtin gene cause Huntington’s. New research, funded in part by CIRM, promises to clear some things up. The report, published this week in Neuron, establishes a connection between mutant Huntingtin and its impact on the transport of cell components between the nucleus and cytoplasm.

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The pores in the nuclear envelope allows proteins and molecules to pass between a cell’s nucleus and it’s cytoplasm. Image: Blausen.com staff (2014).

To function smoothly, a cell must be able to transport proteins and molecules in and out of the nucleus through holes called nuclear pores. The research team – a collaboration of scientists from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Florida and UC Irvine – found that in nerve cells, the mutant Huntingtin protein clumps up and plays havoc on the nuclear pore structure which leads to cell death. The study was performed in fly and mouse models of HD, in human HD brain samples as well as HD patient nerve cells derived with the induced pluripotent stem cell technique – all with this same finding.

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Huntington’s disease is caused by the loss of a nerve cells called medium spiny neurons. Image: Wikimedia commons

By artificially producing more of the proteins that make up the nuclear pores, the damaging effects caused by the mutant Huntingtin protein were reduced. Similar results were seen using drugs that help stabilize the nuclear pore structure. The implications of these results did not escape George Yohrling, a senior director at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, who was not involved in the study. Yohrling told Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn:

“This is very exciting research because we didn’t know what mutant genes or proteins were doing in the body, and this points to new areas to target research. Scientists, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies could capitalize on this and maybe develop therapies for this biological process”,

It’s important to temper that excitement with a reality check on how much work is still needed before the thought of clinical trials can begin. Researchers still don’t understand why the mutant protein only affects a specific type of nerve cells and it’s far from clear if these drugs would work or be safe to use in the context of the human brain.

Still, each new insight is one step in the march toward a cure.