Media matters in spreading the word

Cover of New Yorker article on “The Birth Tissue Profiteers”. Illustration by Ben Jones

When you have a great story to tell the best and most effective way to get it out to the widest audience is still the media, both traditional mainstream and new social media. Recently we have seen three great examples of how that can be done and, hopefully, the benefits that can come from it.

First, let’s go old school. Earlier this month Caroline Chen wrote a wonderful in-depth article about clinics that are cashing in on a gray area in stem cell research. The piece, a collaboration between the New Yorker magazine and ProPublica, focused on the use of amniotic stem cell treatments and the gap between what the clinics who offer it are claiming it can do, and the reality.

Here’s one paragraph profiling a Dr. David Greene, who runs a company providing amniotic fluid to clinics. It’s a fine piece of writing showing how the people behind these therapies blur the lines between fact and reality, not just about the cells but also about themselves:

“Greene said that amniotic stem cells derive their healing power from an ability to develop into any kind of tissue, but he failed to mention that mainstream science does not support his claims. He also did not disclose that he lost his license to practice medicine in 2009, after surgeries he botched resulted in several deaths. Instead, he offered glowing statistics: amniotic stem cells could help the heart beat better, “on average by twenty per cent,” he said. “Over eighty-five per cent of patients benefit exceptionally from the treatment.”

Greene later backpedals on that claim, saying:

“I don’t claim that this is a treatment. I don’t claim that it cures anything. I don’t claim that it’s a permanent fix. All I discuss is maybe, potentially, people can get some improvements from stem-cell care.”

CBS2 TV Chicago

This week CBS2 TV in Chicago did their own investigative story about how the number of local clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies is on the rise. Reporter Pam Zekman showed how misleading newspaper ads brought in people desperate for something, anything, to ease their arthritis pain.

She interviewed two patients who went to one of those clinics, and ended up out of pocket, and out of luck.

“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Patricia Korona recalled. She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.

He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”

John Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder. But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.

“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.      

TV and print reports like this are a great way to highlight the bogus claims made by many of these clinics, and to shine a light on how they use hype to sell hope to people who are in pain and looking for help.

At a time when journalism seems to be increasingly under attack with accusations of “fake news” it’s encouraging to see reporters like these taking the time and news outlets devoting the resources to uncover shady practices and protect vulnerable patients.

But the news isn’t all bad, and the use of social media can help highlight the good news.

That’s what happened yesterday in our latest CIRM Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event. The event focused on the future of stem cell research but also included a really thoughtful look at the progress that’s been made over the last 10-15 years.

We had two great guests, UC Davis stem cell researcher and one of the leading bloggers on the field, Paul Knoepfler PhD; and David Higgins, PhD, a scientist, member of the CIRM Board and a Patient Advocate for Huntington’s Disease. They were able to highlight the challenges of the early years of stem cell research, both globally and here at CIRM, and show how the field has evolved at a remarkable rate in recent years.

Paul Knoepfler

Naturally the subject of the “bogus clinics” came up – Paul has become a national expert on these clinics and is quoted in the New Yorker article – as did the subject of the frustration some people feel at what they consider to be the too-slow pace of progress. As David Higgins noted, we all think it’s too slow, but we are not going to race recklessly ahead in search of something that might heal if we might also end up doing something that might kill.

David Higgins

A portion of the discussion focused on funding and, in particular, what happens if CIRM is no longer around to fund the most promising research in California. We are due to run out of funding for new projects by the end of this year, and without a re-infusion of funds we will be pretty much closing our doors by the end of 2020. Both Paul and David felt that could be disastrous for the field here in California, depriving the most promising projects of support at a time when they needed it most.

It’s probably not too surprising that three people so closely connected to CIRM (Paul has received funding from us in the past) would conclude that CIRM is needed for stem cell research to not just survive but thrive in California.

A word of caution before you watch: fashion conscious people may be appalled at how my pocket handkerchief took on a life of its own.

Media shine a spotlight on dodgy stem cell clinics

A doctor collects fat from a patient’’s back as part of an experimental stem cell procedure in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Dec. 5, 2014. (Raquel Maria Dillon / Associated Press)

For several years now, we have been trying to raise awareness about the risks posed by clinics offering unproven or unapproved stem cell therapies. At times it felt as if we were yelling into the wind, that few people were listening. But that’s slowly changing. A growing number of TV stations and newspapers are picking up the message and warning their readers and viewers. It’s a warning that is getting national exposure.

Why are we concerned about these clinics? Well, they claim their therapies, which usually involve the patient’s own fat or blood cells, can cure everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. However, they offer no scientific proof, have no studies to back up their claims and charge patients thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

In the LA Times, for example, reporter Usha Lee McFarling, wrote an article headline “California has gone crazy for sketchy stem cell treatments”. In it she writes about the claims made by these clinics and the dangers they pose:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it is. There is no good scientific evidence the pricey treatments work, and there is growing evidence that some are dangerous, causing blindness, tumors and paralysis. Medical associations, the federal government and even Consumer Reports have all issued stern warnings to patients about the clinics.”

In Denver, the ABC TV station recently did an in-depth interview with a local doctor who is trying to get Colorado state legislators to take legal action against stem cell clinics making these kinds of unsupported claims.

Chris Centeno of the Centeno-Schultz Clinic, who’s specialized in regenerative medicine and research for more than a decade, said too many people are simply being scammed.

“It’s really out of control,” he told the station.

ABC7 did a series of reports last year on the problem and that may be prompting this push for a law warning consumers about the dangers posed by these unregulated treatments which are advertised heavily online, on TV and in print.

In California there is already one law on the books attempting to warn consumers about these clinics. CIRM worked with State Senator Ed Hernandez to get that passed (you can read about that here) and we are continuing to support even stronger measures.

And the NBC TV station in San Diego recently reported on the rise of stem cell clinics around the US, a story that was picked up by the networks and run on the NBC Today Show.

One of the critical elements in helping raise awareness about the issue has been the work done by Paul Knoepfler and Leigh Turner in identifying how many of these clinics there are around the US. Their report, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, was the first to show how big the problem is. It attracted national attention and triggered many of the reports that followed.

It is clear momentum is building and we hope to build on that even further. Obviously, the best solution would be to have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) crack down on these clinics, and in some cases they have. But the FDA lacks the manpower to tackle all of them.

That’s where the role of the media is so important. By doing stories like these and raising awareness about the risks these clinics pose they can hopefully help many patients avoid treatments that will do little except make a dent in their pocket.

The story behind the book about the Stem Cell Agency

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Don Reed at his book launch: Photo by Todd Dubnicoff

WHY I WROTE “CALIFORNIA CURES”  By Don C. Reed

It was Wednesday, June 13th, 2018, the launch day for my new book, “CALIFORNIA CURES: How the California Stem Cell Research Program is Fighting Your Incurable Disease!”

As I stood in front of the audience of scientists, CIRM staff members, patient advocates, I thought to myself, “these are the kind of people who built the California stem cell program.” Wheelchair warriors Karen Miner and Susan Rotchy, sitting in the front row, typified the determination and resolve typical of those who fought to get the program off the ground. Now I was about to ask them to do it one more time.

My first book about CIRM was “STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond. It told the story of  how we got started: the initial struggles—and a hopeful look into the future.

Imagine being in a boat on the open sea and there was a patch of green on the horizon. You could be reasonably certain those were the tops of coconut trees, and that there was an island attached—but all you could see was a patch of green.

Today we can see the island. We are not on shore yet, but it is real.

“CALIFORNIA CURES” shows what is real and achieved: the progress the scientists have made– and why we absolutely must continue.

For instance, in the third row were three little girls, their parents and grandparents.

One of them was Evangelina “Evie” Vaccaro, age 5. She was alive today because of CIRM, who had funded the research and the doctor who saved her.

Don Reed and Evie and Alysia

Don Reed, Alysia Vaccaro and daughter Evie: Photo by Yimy Villa

Evie was born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) commonly called the “bubble baby” disease. It meant she could never go outside because her immune system could not protect her.  Her mom and dad had to wear hospital masks to get near her, even just to give her a hug.

But Dr. Donald Kohn of UCLA operated on the tiny girl, taking out some of her bone marrow, repairing the genetic defect that caused SCID, then putting the bone marrow back.

Today, “Evie” glowed with health, and was cheerfully oblivious to the fuss she raised.

I was actually a little intimidated by her, this tiny girl who so embodied the hopes and dreams of millions. What a delight to hear her mother Alysia speak, explaining  how she helped Evie understand her situation:  she had “unicorn blood” which could help other little children feel better too.

This was CIRM in action, fighting to save lives and ease suffering.

If people really knew what is happening at CIRM, they would absolutely have to support it. That’s why I write, to get the message out in bite-size chunks.

You might know the federal statistics—133 million children, women and men with one or more chronic diseases—at a cost of $2.9 trillion dollars last year.

But not enough people know California’s battle to defeat those diseases.

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Adrienne Shapiro at the book launch: Photo by Todd Dubnicoff

Champion patient advocate Adrienne Shapiro was with us, sharing a little of the stress a parent feels if her child has sickle cell anemia, and the science which gives us hope:  the CIRM-funded doctor who cured Evie is working on sickle cell now.

Because of CIRM, newly paralyzed people now have a realistic chance to recover function: a stem cell therapy begun long ago (pride compels me to mention it was started by the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act, named after my son), is using stem cells to re-insulate damaged nerves in the spine.  Six people were recently given the stem cell treatment pioneered by Hans Keirstead, (currently running for Congress!)  and all six experienced some level of recovery, in a few cases regaining some use of their arms hands.

Are you old enough to remember the late Annette Funicello and Richard Pryor?  These great entertainers were stricken by multiple sclerosis, a slow paralysis.  A cure did not come in time for them. But the international cooperation between California’s Craig Wallace and Australia’s Claude Bernard may help others: by  re-insulating MS-damaged nerves like what was done with spinal cord injury.

My brother David shattered his leg in a motorcycle accident. He endured multiple operations, had steel rods and plates inserted into his leg. Tomorrow’s accident recovery may be easier.  At Cedars-Sinai, Drs. Dan Gazit and Hyun Bae are working to use stem cells to regrow the needed bone.

My wife suffers arthritis in her knees. Her pain is so great she tries to make only one trip a day down and up the stairs of our home.  The cushion of cartilage in her knees is worn out, so it is bone on bone—but what if that living cushion could be restored? Dr. Denis Evseenko of UCLA is attempting just that.

As I spoke, on the wall behind me was a picture of a beautiful woman, Rosie Barrero, who had been left blind by retinitis pigmentosa. Rosie lost her sight when her twin children were born—and regained it when they were teenagers—seeing them for the first time, thanks to Dr. Henry Klassen, another scientist funded by CIRM.

What about cancer? That miserable condition has killed several of my family, and I was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer myself. I had everything available– surgery, radiation, hormone shots which felt like harpoons—hopefully I am fine, but who knows for sure?

Irv Weissman, the friendly bear genius of Stanford, may have the answer to cancer.  He recognized there were cancer stem cells involved. Nobody believed him for a while, but it is now increasingly accepted that these cancer stem cells have a coating of protein which makes them invisible to the body’s defenses. The Weissman procedure may peel off that “cloak of invisibility” so the immune system can find and kill them all—and thereby cure their owner.

What will happen when CIRM’s funding runs out next year?

If we do nothing, the greatest source of stem cell research funding will be gone. We need to renew CIRM. Patients all around the world are depending on us.

The California stem cell program was begun and led by Robert N. “Bob” Klein. He not only led the campaign, was its chief writer and number one donor, but he was also the first Chair of the Board, serving without pay for the first six years. It was an incredible burden; he worked beyond exhaustion routinely.

Would he be willing to try it again, this time to renew the funding of a successful program? When I asked him, he said:

“If California polls support the continuing efforts of CIRM—then I am fully committed to a 2020 initiative to renew the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).”

Shakespeare said it best in his famous “to be or not to be” speech, asking if it is “nobler …to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles—and by opposing, end them”.

Should we passively endure chronic disease and disability—or fight for cures?

California’s answer was the stem cell program CIRM—and continuing CIRM is the reason I wrote this book.

Don C. Reed is the author of “CALIFORNIA CURES: How the California Stem Cell Program is Fighting Your Incurable Disease!”, from World Scientific Publishing, Inc., publisher of the late Professor Stephen Hawking.

For more information, visit the author’s website: www.stemcellbattles.com

 

A shot in the arm for people with bad knees

knee

Almost every day I get an email or phone call from someone asking if we have a stem cell therapy for bad knees. The inquiries are from people who’ve been told they need surgery to replace joints damaged by age and arthritis. They’re not alone. Every year around 600,000 Americans get a knee replacement. That number is expected to rise to three million by 2030.

Up till now my answer to those calls and emails has been ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anything’. But a new CIRM-funded study from USC stem cell scientist Denis Evseenko says that may not always be the case.

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The ability to regenerate joint cartilage cells instead of surgically replacing joints would be a big boon for future patients. (Photo/Nancy Liu, Denis Evseenko Lab, USC Stem Cell)

Evseenko and his team have discovered a molecule they have called Regulator of Cartilage Growth and Differentiation or RCGD 423. This cunning molecule works in two different ways. One is to reduce the inflammation that many people with arthritis have in their joints. The second is to help stimulate the regeneration of the cartilage destroyed by arthritis.

When they tested RCGD 423 in rats with damaged cartilage, the rats cartilage improved. The study is published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.

In an article in USC News, Evseenko, says there is a lot of work to do but that this approach could ultimately help people with osteoarthritis or juvenile arthritis.

“The goal is to make an injectable therapy for an early to moderate level of arthritis. It’s not going to cure arthritis, but it will delay the progression of arthritis to the damaging stages when patients need joint replacements, which account for a million surgeries a year in the U.S.”

Clever technique uncovers role of stem cells in cartilage repair

Over 50 million adults in the U.S. are estimated to be affected by some form of arthritis, a very painful, debilitating condition in which the cartilage that provides cushioning within bone joints gradually degrades. Health care costs of treating arthritis in California alone has been estimated at over $12 billion and that figure is already over a decade old. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t do a good job at healing cartilage in the joint so doctors rely mostly on masking symptoms with pain management therapy and, in severe cases, resorting to surgery.

Illustration of damaged cartilage within an osteoarthritic hip joint Image: Wikipedia/Open Stax

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) – found in bone marrow, fat and blood – give rise to several cell types including cartilage-producing cells called chondrocytes. For that reason, they hold a lot of promise to restore healthy joints for arthritis sufferers. While there is growing evidence that injection of MSCs into joint cartilage is effective, it is still not clear how exactly the stem cells work. Do they take up residence in the cartilage, and give rise to new cartilage production in the joint? Or do they simply release proteins and molecules that stimulate other cells within the joint to restore cartilage? These are important questions to ask when it comes to understanding what tweaks you can make to your cell therapy to optimize its safety and effectiveness. Using some clever genetic engineering techniques in animal models, a research team at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria report this week in JCI Insights that they’ve uncovered an answer.

Tracking the fate of a stem cell treatment after they’ve been injected into an animal, requires the attachment of some sort of “beacon” to the cells. A number of methods exist to accomplish this feat and they all rely on creating transgenic animals engineered to carry a gene that produces a protein label on the cells. For instance, cells from mice or rats engineered to carry the luciferase gene from fireflies, will glow and can be tracked in live animals. So, in this scenario, MSCs from a genetically-engineered donor animal are injected into the joints of a recipient animal which lacks this protein marker. This technique allows the researchers to observe what happens to the labeled cells.

There’s a catch, though. The protein marker carried along with the injected cells is seen as foreign to the immune system of the animal that receives the cells. As a result, the cells will be rejected and destroyed. To get around that problem, the current practice is to use recipient animals bred to have a limited immune response so that the injected cells survive. But solving this problem adds yet another: the immune system plays a key role in the mechanisms of arthritis so removing the effects of it in this experiment will likely lead to misinterpretations of the results.

So, the research team did something clever. They genetically engineered both the donor and recipient mice to carry the same protein marker but with an ever-so-slight difference in their genetic code. The genetic difference in the protein marker was large enough to allow the team to track the donor stem cells in the recipient animals, but similar enough to avoid rejection from the immune system. With all these components of the experiment in place, the researchers were able to show that the MSCs release protein factors to help the body repair its own cartilage damage and not by directly replacing the cartilage-producing cells.

CIRM Board invests in three new stem cell clinical trials targeting arthritis, cancer and deadly infections

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Arthritis of the knee

Every day at CIRM we get calls from people looking for a stem cell therapy to help them fight a life-threatening or life-altering disease or condition. One of the most common calls is about osteoarthritis, a painful condition where the cartilage that helps cushion our joints is worn away, leaving bone to rub on bone. People call asking if we have something, anything, that might be able to help them. Now we do.

At yesterday’s CIRM Board meeting the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee or ICOC (the formal title of the Board) awarded almost $8.5 million to the California Institute for Biomedical Research (CALIBR) to test a drug that appears to help the body regenerate cartilage. In preclinical tests the drug, KA34, stimulated mesenchymal stem cells to turn into chondrocytes, the kind of cell found in healthy cartilage. It’s hoped these new cells will replace those killed off by osteoarthritis and repair the damage.

This is a Phase 1 clinical trial where the goal is primarily to make sure this approach is safe in patients. If the treatment also shows hints it’s working – and of course we hope it will – that’s a bonus which will need to be confirmed in later stage, and larger, clinical trials.

From a purely selfish perspective, it will be nice for us to be able to tell callers that we do have a clinical trial underway and are hopeful it could lead to an effective treatment. Right now the only alternatives for many patients are powerful opioids and pain killers, surgery, or turning to clinics that offer unproven stem cell therapies.

Targeting immune system cancer

The CIRM Board also awarded Poseida Therapeutics $19.8 million to target multiple myeloma, using the patient’s own genetically re-engineered stem cells. Multiple myeloma is caused when plasma cells, which are a type of white blood cell found in the bone marrow and are a key part of our immune system, turn cancerous and grow out of control.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s President & CEO, said in a news release:

“Multiple myeloma disproportionately affects people over the age of 65 and African Americans, and it leads to progressive bone destruction, severe anemia, infectious complications and kidney and heart damage from abnormal proteins produced by the malignant plasma cells.  Less than half of patients with multiple myeloma live beyond 5 years. Poseida’s technology is seeking to destroy these cancerous myeloma cells with an immunotherapy approach that uses the patient’s own engineered immune system T cells to seek and destroy the myeloma cells.”

In a news release from Poseida, CEO Dr. Eric Ostertag, said the therapy – called P-BCMA-101 – holds a lot of promise:

“P-BCMA-101 is elegantly designed with several key characteristics, including an exceptionally high concentration of stem cell memory T cells which has the potential to significantly improve durability of response to treatment.”

Deadly infections

The third clinical trial funded by the Board yesterday also uses T cells. Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles were awarded $4.8 million for a Phase 1 clinical trial targeting potentially deadly infections in people who have a weakened immune system.

Viruses such as cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, and adenovirus are commonly found in all of us, but our bodies are usually able to easily fight them off. However, patients with weakened immune systems resulting from chemotherapy, bone marrow or cord blood transplant often lack that ability to combat these viruses and it can prove fatal.

The researchers are taking T cells from healthy donors that have been genetically matched to the patient’s immune system and engineered to fight these viruses. The cells are then transplanted into the patient and will hopefully help boost their immune system’s ability to fight the virus and provide long-term protection.

Whenever you can tell someone who calls you, desperately looking for help, that you have something that might be able to help them, you can hear the relief on the other end of the line. Of course, we explain that these are only early-stage clinical trials and that we don’t know if they’ll work. But for someone who up until that point felt they had no options and, often, no hope, it’s welcome and encouraging news that progress is being made.

 

 

Harnessing DNA as a programmable instruction kit for stem cell function

DNA is the fundamental molecule to all living things. The genetic sequences embedded in its double-helical structure contain the instructions for producing proteins, the building blocks of our cells. When our cells divide, DNA readily unzips into two strands and makes a copy of itself for each new daughter cell. In a Nature Communications report this week, researchers at Northwestern University describe how they have harnessed DNA’s elegant design, which evolved over a billion years ago, to engineer a programmable set of on/off instructions to mimic the dynamic interactions that cells encounter in the body. This nano-sized toolkit could provide a means to better understand stem cell behavior and to develop regenerative therapies to treat a wide range of disorders.

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Instructing cells with programmable DNA-protein hybrids: switching bioactivity on and off Image: Stupp lab/Northwestern U.

While cells are what make up the tissues and organs of our bodies, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Cells also secrete proteins and molecules that form a scaffold between cells called the extracellular matrix. Though it was once thought to be merely structural, it’s clear that the matrix also plays a key role in regulating cell function. It provides a means to position multiple cell signaling molecules in just the right spot at the right time to stimulate a particular cell behavior as well as interactions between cells. This physical connection between the matrix, molecules and cells called a “niche” plays an important role for stem cell function.

Since studying cells in the laboratory involves growing them on plastic petri dishes, researchers have devised many methods for mimicking the niche to get a more accurate picture of how cells response to signals in the body. The tricky part has been to capture three main characteristics of the extracellular matrix all in one experiment; that is, the ability to add and then reverse a signal, to precisely position cell signals and to combine signals to manipulate cell function. That’s where the Northwestern team and its DNA toolkit come into the picture.

They first immobilized a single strand of DNA onto the surface of a material where cells are grown. Then they added a hybrid molecule – they call it “P-DNA” – made up of a particular signaling protein attached to a single strand of DNA that pairs with the immobilized DNA. Once those DNA strands zip together, that tethers the signaling protein to the material where the cells encounter it, effectively “switching on” that protein signal. Adding an excess of single-stranded DNA that doesn’t contain the attached protein, pushes out the P-DNA which can be washed away thereby switching off the protein signal. Then the P-DNA can be added back to restart the signal once again.

Because the DNA sequences can be easily synthesized in the lab, it allows the researchers to program many different instructions to the cells. For instance, combinations of different protein signals can be turned on simultaneously and the length of the DNA strands can precisely control the positioning of cell-protein interactions. The researchers used this system to show that spinal cord neural stem cells, which naturally clump together in neurospheres when grown in a dish, can be instructed to spread out on the dish’s surface and begin specializing into mature brain cells. But when that signal is turned off, the cells ball up together again into the neurospheres.

Team lead Samuel Stupp looks to this reversible, on-demand control of cell activity as means to develop patient specific therapies in the future:

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Samuel Stupp

“People would love to have cell therapies that utilize stem cells derived from their own bodies to regenerate tissue. In principle, this will eventually be possible, but one needs procedures that are effective at expanding and differentiating cells in order to do so. Our technology does that,” he said in a university press release.

 

 

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.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: new baldness treatments?, novel lung stem cells, and giraffe stem cells

Novel immune system/stem cell interaction may lead to better treatments for baldness. When one thinks of the immune system it’s usually in terms of the body’s ability to fight off a bad cold or flu virus. But a team of UCSF researchers this week report in Cell that a particular cell of the immune system is key to instructing stem cells to maintain hair growth. Their results suggest that the loss of these immune cells, called regulatory T cells (Tregs for short), may be the cause of baldness seen in alopecia areata, a common autoimmune disorder and may even play a role in male pattern baldness.

Alopecia, a common autoimmune disorder that causes baldness. Image: Shutterstock

While most cells of the immune system recognize and kill foreign or dysfunctional cells in our bodies, Tregs act to subdue those cells to avoid collateral damage to perfectly healthy cells. If Tregs become impaired, it can lead to autoimmune disorders in which the body attacks itself.

The UCSF team had previously shown that Tregs allow microorganisms that are beneficial to skin health in mice to avoid the grasp of the immune system. In follow up studies they intended to examine what happens to skin health when Treg cells were inhibited in the skin of the mice. The procedure required shaving away small patches of hair to allow observation of the skin. Over the course of the experiment, the scientists notice something very curious. Team lead Dr. Michael Rosenblum recalled what they saw in a UCSF press release:

“We quickly noticed that the shaved patches of hair never grew back, and we thought, ‘Hmm, now that’s interesting. We realized we had to delve into this further.”

That delving showed that Tregs are located next to hair follicle stem cells. And during the hair growth, the Tregs grow in number and surround the stem cells. Further examination, found that Tregs trigger the stem cells through direct cell to cell interactions. These mechanisms are different than those used for their immune system-inhibiting function.

With these new insights, Dr. Rosenblum hopes this new-found role for Tregs in hair growth may lead to better treatments for Alopecia, one of the most common forms of autoimmune disease.

Novel lung stem cells bring new insights into poorly understood chronic lung disease. Pulmonary fibrosis is a chronic lung disease that’s characterized by scarring and changes in the structure of tiny blood vessels, or microvessels, within lungs. This so-called “remodeling” of lung tissue hampers the transfer of oxygen from the lung to the blood leading to dangerous symptoms like shortness of breath. Unfortunately, the cause of most cases of pulmonary fibrosis is not understood.

This week, Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers report in the Journal of Clinical Investigation the identification of a new type of lung stem cell that may play a role in lung remodeling.

Susan Majka and Christa Gaskill, and colleagues are studying certain lung stem cells that likely contribute to the pathobiology of chronic lung diseases.  Photo by: Susan Urmy

Up until now, the cells that make up the microvessels were thought to contribute to the detrimental changes to lung tissue in pulmonary fibrosis or other chronic lung diseases. But the Vanderbilt team wasn’t convinced since these microvessel cells were already fully matured and wouldn’t have the ability to carry out the lung remodeling functions.

They had previously isolated stem cells from both mouse and human lung tissue located near microvessels. In this study, they tracked these mesenchymal progenitor cells (MPCs) in normal and disease inducing scenarios. The team’s leader, Dr. Susan Majka, summarized the results of this part of the study in a press release:

“When these cells are abnormal, animals develop vasculopathy — a loss of structure in the microvessels and subsequently the lung. They lose the surfaces for gas exchange.”

The team went on to find differences in gene activity in MPCs from healthy versus diseased lungs. They hope to exploit these differences to identify molecules that would provide early warnings of the disease. Dr. Majka explains the importance of these “biomarkers”:

“With pulmonary vascular diseases, by the time a patient has symptoms, there’s already major damage to the microvasculature. Using new biomarkers to detect the disease before symptoms arise would allow for earlier treatment, which could be effective at decreasing progression or even reversing the disease process.”

The happy stem cell story of Mahali the giraffe. We leave you this week with a feel-good story about Mahali, a 14-year old giraffe at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. Mahali had suffered from chronic arthritis in his front left leg. As a result, he could not move well and was kept isolated from his herd.

Giraffes at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Photo: Denver Post

The zoo’s head veterinarian, Dr. Liza Dadone, decided to try a stem cell therapy procedure to bring Mahali some relief and a better quality of life. It’s the first time such a treatment would be performed on a giraffe. With the help of doctors at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, 100 million stem cells grown from Mahali’s blood were injected into his arthritic leg.

Before treatment, thermograph shows inflammation (red/yellow) in Mahali’s left front foot (seen at far right of each image); after treatment inflammation resolved (blue/green). Photos: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

In a written statement to the Colorado Gazette, Dr. Dadone summarized the positive outcome:

“Prior to the procedure, he was favoring his left front leg and would lift that foot off the ground almost once per minute. Since then, Mahali is no longer constantly lifting his left front leg off the ground and has resumed cooperating for hoof care. A few weeks ago, he returned to life with his herd, including yard access. On the thermogram, the marked inflammation up the leg has mostly resolved.”

Now, Dr. Dadone made sure to state that other treatments and medicine were given to Mahali in addition to the stem cell therapy. So, it’s not totally clear to what extent the stem cells contributed to Mahali’s recovery. Maybe future patients will receive stem cells alone to be sure. But for now, we’re just happy for Mahali’s new lease on life.

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

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial keeping a steady pace

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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