Stories that caught our eye: Spinal cord injury trial milestone, iPS for early cancer diagnosis, and storing videos in DNA

Spinal cord injury clinical trial hits another milestone (Kevin McCormack)
We began the week with good news about our CIRM-funded clinical trial with Asterias for spinal cord injury, and so it’s nice to end the week with more good news from that same trial. On Wednesday, Asterias announced it had completed enrolling and dosing patients in their AIS-B 10 million cell group.

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People with AIS-B spinal cord injuries have some level of sensation and feeling but very little, if any, movement below the site of injury site. So for example, spinal cord injuries at the neck, would lead to very limited movement in their arms and hands. As a result, they face a challenging life and may be dependent on help in performing most daily functions, from getting out of bed to eating.astopc1

In another branch of the Asterias trial, people with even more serious AIS-A injuries – in which no feeling or movement remains below the site of spinal cord injury – experienced improvements after being treated with Asterias’ AST-OPC1 stem cell therapy. In some cases the improvements were quite dramatic. We blogged about those here.

In a news release Dr. Ed Wirth, Asterias’ Chief Medical Officer, said they hope that the five people treated in the AIS-B portion of the trial will experience similar improvements as the AIS-A group.

“Completing enrollment and dosing of the first cohort of AIS-B patients marks another important milestone for our AST-OPC1 program. We have already reported meaningful improvements in arm, hand and finger function for AIS-A patients dosed with 10 million AST-OPC1 cells and we are looking forward to reporting initial efficacy and safety data for this cohort early in 2018.”

Asterias is already treating some AIS-A patients with 20 million cells and hopes to start enrolling AIS-B patients for the 20 million cell therapy later this summer.

Earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer using induced pluripotent stem cells Reprogramming adult cells to an embryonic stem cell-like state is as common in research laboratories as hammers and nails are on a construction site. But a research article in this week’s edition of Science Translational Medicine used this induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) toolbox in a way I had never read about before. And the results of the study may lead to earlier detection of pancreatic cancer, the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Zaret STM pancreatic cancer tissue July 17

A pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma
Credit: The lab of Ken Zaret, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

We’ve summarized countless iPSCs studies over the years. For example, skin or blood samples from people with Parkinson’s disease can be converted to iPSCs and then specialized into brain cells to provide a means to examine the disease in a lab dish. The starting material – the skin or blood sample – typically has no connection to the disease so for all intents and purposes, it’s a healthy cell. It’s only after specializing it into a nerve cell that the disease reveals itself.

But the current study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used late stage pancreatic cancer cells as their iPSC cell source. One of the reasons pancreatic cancer is thought to be so deadly is because it’s usually diagnosed very late when standard treatments are less effective. So, this team aimed to reprogram the cancer cells back into an earlier stage of the cancer to hopefully find proteins or molecules that could act as early warning signals, or biomarkers, of pancreatic cancer.

Their “early-stage-cancer-in-a-dish” model strategy was a success. The team identified a protein called thrombospodin-2 (THBS2) as a new candidate biomarker. As team lead, Dr. Ken Zaret, described in a press release, measuring blood levels of THBS2 along with a late-stage cancer biomarker called CA19-9 beat out current detection tests:

“Positive results for THBS2 or CA19-9 concentrations in the blood consistently and correctly identified all stages of the cancer. Notably, THBS2 concentrations combined with CA19-9 identified early stages better than any other known method.”

DNA: the ultimate film archive device?
This last story for the week isn’t directly related to stem cells but is too cool to ignore. For the first time ever, researchers at Harvard report in Nature that they have converted a video into a DNA sequence which was then inserted into bacteria. As Gina Kolata states in her New York Times article about the research, the study represents the ultimate data archive system which can “be retrieved at will and multiplied indefinitely as the host [bacteria] divides and grows.”

A video file is nothing but a collection of “1s” and “0s” of binary code which describe the makeup of each pixel in each frame of a movie. The researchers used the genetic code within DNA to describe each pixel in a short clip of one of the world’s first motion pictures: a galloping horse captured by Eadward Muybridge in 1878.

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The resulting DNA sequence was then inserted into the chromosome of E.Coli., a common bacteria that lives in your intestines, using the CRISPR gene editing method. The video code was still retrievable after the bacteria was allowed to multiply.

The Harvard team envisions applications well beyond a mere biological hard drive. Dr. Seth Shipman, an author of the study, told Paul Rincon of BBC news that he thinks this cell system could be placed in various parts of the body to analyze cell function and “encode information about what’s going on in the cell and what’s going on in the cell environment by writing that information into their own genome”.

Perhaps then it could be used to monitor the real-time activity of stem cell therapies inside the body. For now, I’ll wait to hear about that in some upcoming science fiction film.

One man’s journey with leukemia has turned into a quest to make bone marrow stem cell transplants safer

Dr. Lukas Wartman in his lab in March 2011 (left), before he developed chronic graft-versus-host disease, and last month at a physical therapy session (right). (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

I read a story yesterday in Science Magazine that really stuck with me. It’s about a man who was diagnosed with leukemia and received a life-saving stem cell transplant that is now threatening his health.

The man is name Lukas Wartman and is a doctor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He was first diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2003. Since then he has taken over 70 drugs and undergone two rounds of bone marrow stem cell transplants to fight off his cancer.

The first stem cell transplant was from his brother, which replaced Wartman’s diseased bone marrow, containing blood forming stem cells and immune cells, with healthy cells. In combination with immunosuppressive drugs, the transplant worked without any complications. Unfortunately, a few years later the cancer returned. This time, Wartman opted for a second transplant from an unrelated donor.

While the second transplant and cancer-fighting drugs have succeeded in keeping his cancer at bay, Wartman is now suffering from something equally life threatening – a condition called graft vs host disease (GVHD). In a nut shell, the stem cell transplant that cured him of cancer and saved his life is now attacking his body.

GVHD, a common side effect of bone marrow transplants

GVHD is a disease where donor transplanted immune cells, called T cells, expand and attack the cells and tissues in your body because they see them as foreign invaders. GVHD occurs in approximately 50% of patients who receive bone marrow, peripheral blood or cord blood stem cell transplants, and typically affects the skin, eyes, mouth, liver and intestines.

The main reason why GVHD is common following blood stem cell transplants is because many patients receive transplants from unrelated donors or family members who aren’t close genetic matches. Half of patients who receive these types of transplants develop an acute form of GVHD within 100 days of treatment. These patients are put on immunosuppressive steroid drugs with the hope that the patient’s body will eventually kill off the aggressive donor T cells.

This was the case for Wartman after the first transplant from his brother, but the second transplant from an unrelated donor eventually caused him to develop the chronic form of GVHD. Wartman is now suffering from weakened muscles, dry eyes, mouth sores and skin issues as the transplanted immune cells slowly attack his body from within. Thankfully, his major organs are still untouched by GVHD, but Wartman knows it could be only a matter of time before his condition worsens.

Dr. Lukas Wartman has to use eye drops every 20 minutes to deal with dry eyes caused by GVHD. (Photo by Whitney Curtis for Science Magazine)

Hope for GVHD sufferers

Wartman along with other GVHD patients are basically guinea pigs in a field where effective drugs are still being developed and tested. Many of these patients, including Wartman, have tried many unproven treatments or drugs for other disease conditions in desperate hope that something will work. It’s a situation that is heartbreaking not only for the patient but also for their families and doctors.

There is hope for GVHD patients however. Science Magazine mentioned two promising drugs for GVHD, ibrutinib and ruxolitinib. Both received breakthrough therapy designation from the US Food and Drug Administration and could be the first approved treatments for GVHD.

Another promising therapy is called Prochymal. It’s a stem cell therapy developed by former CIRM President and CEO, Dr. Randy Mills, at Osiris Therapeutics. Prochymal is already approved to treat the acute form of GVHD in Canada, and is currently being tested in phase 3 trials in the US in young children and adults.

While CIRM isn’t currently funding clinical trials for GVHD, we are funding a trial out of Stanford University led by Dr. Judy Shizuru that aims to improve the outcome of bone marrow stem cell transplants in patients. Shizuru says that these transplants are “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation” but they come with their own set of potentially deadly side effects such as GVHD.

Shizuru is testing an antibody drug that blocks a signaling protein called CD117, which sits on the surface of blood stem cells and acts as an elimination signal. By turning off this protein, her team improved the engraftment of bone marrow stem cells in mice that had leukemia and removed their need for chemotherapy treatment. The therapy is in a Phase 1 trial for patients with an immune disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) who receive bone marrow transplants, but Shizuru said that her hope is the drug could also treat patients with certain cancers or blood diseases.

Advocating for better GVHD treatments

The reason the article in Science Magazine spoke to me is because of the power of Wartman’s story. Wartman’s battle with ALL and now GVHD has transformed him into one of the strongest patient voices advocating for the development of new GVHD treatments. Jon Cohen, the author of the Science Magazine article, explained:

“The urgency of his case has turned Wartman into one of the world’s few patients who advocate for GVHD research, prevention, and treatment. ‘Most people it affects suffer quietly,” says Wartman. ‘They’re grateful they’re alive, and they’re beaten down. It’s the paradox of being cured and dying of the cure. Even if you can get past that, you don’t have the energy to advocate, and that’s really tragic.’”

Patients like Wartman are an inspiration not only to other people with GVHD, but also to funding agencies and scientists working to advance GVHD research towards a cure. We don’t want these patients to suffer quietly. Wartman’s story is an important reminder that there’s a lot more work to do to make bone marrow transplants safer – so that they save lives without later putting those lives at risk.

Stories that caught our eye: smelling weight gain, colon cancer & diet and diabetes & broken bones

How smelling your food could cause weight gain (Karen Ring).
Here’s the headline that caught my eye this week: “Smelling your food first can make you fat…”

It’s a bizarre statement, but the claim is backed by scientific research coming from a new study in Cell Metabolism by researchers at the University of California Berkeley. The team found that obese mice who smelled their food before eating it were more likely to gain weight compared to obese mice that couldn’t smell their food.

Their experiments revealed a connection between the olfactory system, which is responsible for our sense of smell, and how the mice metabolize food into energy. Obese mice that lost their ability to smell actually lost weight on a high-fat diet, burned more fat, and became more sensitive to the hormone insulin. Insulin regulates how much glucose, or sugar, is in the blood by facilitating the absorption of glucose by fat, liver and muscle cells. In obese individuals, insulin resistance can occur where their cells are no longer sensitive to the hormone and therefore can’t regulate how much glucose is in the blood.

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Both mice in this picture were fed the same high-fat diet. The only difference: the lower mouse’s sense of smell was temporarily blocked. Image: UC Berkeley

For obese mice that could smell their food, the same high fat diet given to the “no-smellers” resulted in massive weight gain in the “smellers” because their metabolism was impaired. Even more interesting is the fact that other types of smells unrelated to food, such as the scent of other mice, influenced weight gain in the “smellers”.

The authors concluded that the centers in our brain that are responsible for smell (the olfactory system) and metabolism (the hypothalamus) are connected and that manipulating smell could be a future strategy to influence how the brain controls the balance of energy during food consumption.

In an interview with Tech Times, senior author on the study, Dr. Andrew Dillin, explained how their research could potentially lead to a new strategy to promote weight loss,

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Andrew Dillin. Image: HHMI

“Sensory systems play a role in metabolism. Weight gain isn’t purely a measure of the calories taken in; it’s also related to how those calories are perceived. If we can validate this in humans, perhaps we can actually make a drug that doesn’t interfere with smell but still blocks that metabolic circuitry. That would be amazing.”

A link between colorectal cancer and a Western diet identified
Weight gain isn’t the only concern of a eating a high-fat diet. It’s thought that 80% of colorectal cases are associated with a high-fat, Western diet. The basis for this connection hasn’t been well understood. But this week, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic report in Stem Cell Reports that they’ve pinpointed a protein signaling network within cancer stem cells as a possible source of the link.

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Cancer stem cells have properties that resemble embryonic stem cells and are thought to be the source of a cancer’s unlimited growth and spread. A cancer stem cell maintains its properties by exploiting various cell signaling processes that when functioning abnormally can lead to inappropriate cell division and tumor growth. In this study, the team focused on one cell signaling process carried out by a protein called STAT3, known to promote tumor growth in a mouse model of colon cancer. When the team blocked STAT3 activity, high fat diet-induced cancer stem cell growth subsided.

In a press release, Dr. Matthew Kalady, a colorectal surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and an author on this study, explained how this new insight can open new therapeutic avenues:

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Matthew Kalady. Image: Cleveland Clinic

“We have known the influence of diet on colorectal cancer. However, these new findings are the first to show the connection between high-fat intake and colon cancer via a specific molecular pathway. We can now build upon this knowledge to develop new treatments aimed at blocking this pathway and reducing the negative impact of a high-fat diet on colon cancer risk.”

 

 

Scientists connect dots between diabetes and broken bones.
Type 2 diabetes carries a whole host of long-term complications including heart disease, nerve damage, kidney dysfunction and even an increased risk for bone fractures. The connection between diabetes and fragile bones has not been well understood. But this week, researchers at New York University of Dentistry, Stanford University and China’s Dalian Medical University published a report, funded in part by CIRM, in this week’s Nature Communications showing a biochemical basis for this connection. The new insight may lead to treatment options to prevent fractures.

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Chemical structure of succinate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Fundamentally, diabetes is a disease that causes hyperglycemia, or abnormally high levels of blood sugar. The team ran a systematic analysis of hyperglycemia’s effects on bone metabolism using bone marrow samples from diabetic and healthy mice. They found that the levels of succinate, a key molecule involved in energy production, are over 20 times higher in the diabetic mice. In turns out that succinate also acts as a stimulator of bone breakdown. Now, bone is continually in a process of turnover and, in a healthy state, the breakdown of old bone is balanced with the formation of new bone. So, it appears that the huge increase of succinate is tipping the balance of bone turnover. In fact, the team found that the porous, yet strong inner region of bone, called trabecular bone, was significantly reduced in the diabetic mice, making them more susceptible to fractures.

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The density of spongy bone, or trabecular bone, is reduced in type 2 diabetes.
Image: Wikimedia commons

Dr. Xin Li, the study’s lead scientist, explained the importance of these new insights for people living with type 2 diabetes in a press release:

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Xin Li.
Image: NYU Dentistry

“The results are important because diabetics have a significantly higher fracture risk and their healing process is always delayed. In our study, the hyperglycemic mice had increased bone resorption [the breakdown and absorption of old bone], which outpaced the formation of new bone. This has implications for bone protection, as well as for the treatment of diabetes-associated collateral bone damage.”

 

Cancer-causing mutations in blood stem cells may also link to heart disease

Whether we read about it in the news or hear it from our doctor, when we think about the causes of heart disease it’s usually some combination of inheriting bad genes from our parents and making poor life style choices like smoking or eating a diet high in fat and cholesterol. But in a fascinating research published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists show evidence that in some people, heart disease may develop much in the same way that a blood cancer does; that is, through a gradual, lifetime accumulation of mutations in hematopoietic cells, or blood stem cells.

This surprising discovery began as a project, published in 2014, aimed at early detection of blood cancers in the general population. This earlier study focused on the line of evidence that cells don’t become cancerous overnight but rather progress slowly as we age. So, in the case of a blood cancer, or leukemia, a blood stem cell can acquire a mutation that transforms the cell into a pre-cancerous state. When that stem cell multiplies it creates “clones” of the blood stem cell that had the cancer-initiating mutation. It’s only after additional genetic insults that these stem cells become full blown cancers.

The research team, composed of scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, examined DNA sequences from blood samples of over 17,000 people who didn’t have blood cancer. They analyzed these samples, specifically looking at 160 genes that are often mutated in blood cancer. The results from the 2014 study showed that mutations in these genes in people 40 years and under were few and far between. Interestingly, the frequency noticeably increased in older folks with those 10% over 70 years of age carrying the mutations.

Most of these so-called “clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential”, or CHIP, mutations occurred in three genes called DNMT3A, TET2, and ASXL1. While these mutations were indeed associated with a 10-fold higher risk of blood cancer, the team also saw an unexpected correlation: people with these mutations had a 40% higher overall risk of dying due to other causes compared to those who did not carry the mutations. They pinpointed heart disease as one primary cause of the increased mortality risk.

The current follow-up study not only sought to confirm this correlation between the mutations and heart disease but also show the mutations cause the increased risk. This time around, the team looked for the mutations in a group of four different populations totaling over 8000 people. Again, they saw a correlation between the mutations and the risk of heart disease or a heart attack later in life. One of the team leads, Dr. Sekar Kathiresan from the Broad Institute, talked about his team’s reaction to these results in a Time Magazine interview:

Sekar Kathiresan, Photo: Broad Institute

“We were fully expecting not to find anything here. But the odds of having an early heart attack are four-fold higher among younger people with CHIP mutations.”

 

To show a causal link, they turned to mouse studies. They collected bone marrow stem cells from mice engineered to lack Tet2, one of the three genes that when mutated had been associated with increased risk of heart disease. The bone marrow cells were then transplanted into mice which are prone to have increased blood cholesterol and symptoms of heart disease. The presence of these cells that lacked Tet2 led to increased hardening of major arteries – a precursor to clogged blood vessels, heart disease and heart attacks – compared to mice that received normal bone marrow cells.

Though more work remains, Kathiresan thinks these current results offer some tantalizing therapeutic possibilities:

“This is a totally different type of risk factor than hypertension or hypercholestserolemia [high blood cholesterol] or smoking. And since it’s a totally different risk factor that works through a different mechanism, it may lead to new treatment opportunities very different from the ones we have for heart disease at present.”

Stories that caught our eye: An antibody that could make stem cell research safer; scientists prepare for clinical trial for Parkinson’s disease; and the stem cell scientist running for Congress

Antibody to make stem cells safer:

There is an old Chinese proverb that states: ‘What seems like a blessing could be a curse’. In some ways that proverb could apply to stem cells. For example, pluripotent stem cells have the extraordinary ability to turn into many other kinds of cells, giving researchers a tool to repair damaged organs and tissues. But that same ability to turn into other kinds of cells means that a pluripotent stem cell could also turn into a cancerous one, endangering someone’s life.

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Researchers at the A*STAR Bioprocessing Technology Institute: Photo courtesy A*STAR

Now researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore may have found a way to stop that happening.

When you change, or differentiate, stem cells into other kinds of cells there will always be some of the original material that didn’t make the transformation. Those cells could turn into tumors called teratomas. Scientists have long sought for a way to identify pluripotent cells that haven’t differentiated, without harming the ones that have.

The team at A*STAR injected mice with embryonic stem cells to generate antibodies. They then tested the ability of the different antibodies to destroy pluripotent stem cells. They found one, they called A1, that did just that; killing pluripotent cells but leaving other cells unharmed.

Further study showed that A1 worked by attaching itself to specific molecules that are only found on the surface of pluripotent cells.

In an article on Phys.Org Andre Choo, the leader of the team, says this gives them a tool to get rid of the undifferentiated cells that could potentially cause problems:

“That was quite exciting because it now gives us a view of the mechanism that is responsible for the cell-killing effect.”

Reviving hope for Parkinson’s patients:

In the 1980’s and 1990’s scientists transplanted fetal tissue into the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. They hoped the cells in the tissue would replace the dopamine-producing cells destroyed by Parkinson’s, and stop the progression of the disease.

For some patients the transplants worked well. For some they produced unwanted side effects. But for most they had little discernible effect. The disappointing results pretty much brought the field to a halt for more than a decade.

But now researchers are getting ready to try again, and a news story on NPR explained why they think things could turn out differently this time.

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Viviane Tabar, MD; Photo courtesy Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Viviane Tabar, a stem cell researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, says in the past the transplanted tissue contained a mixture of cells:

“What you were placing in the patient was just a soup of brain. It did not have only the dopamine neurons, which exist in the tissue, but also several different types of cells.”

This time Tabar and her husband, Lorenz Studer, are using only cells that have been turned into the kind of cell destroyed by the disease. She says that will, hopefully, make all the difference:

“So you are confident that everything you are putting in the patient’s brain will consist of  the right type of cell.”

Tabar and Studer are now ready to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to try their approach out in a clinical trial. They hope that could start as early as next year.

Hans runs for Congress:

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Hans Keirstead: Photo courtesy Orange County Register

Hans Keirstead is a name familiar to many in the stem cell field. Now it could become familiar to a lot of people in the political arena too, because Keirstead has announced he’s planning to run for Congress.

Keirstead is considered by some to be a pioneer in stem cell research. A CIRM grant helped him develop a treatment for spinal cord injury.  That work is now in a clinical trial being run by Asterias. We reported on encouraging results from that trial earlier this week.

Over the years the companies he has founded – focused on ovarian, skin and brain cancer – have made him millions of dollars.

Now he says it’s time to turn his sights to a different stage, Congress. Keirstead has announced he is going to challenge 18-term Orange County Republican Dana Rohrabacher.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Keirstead says his science and business acumen will prove important assets in his bid for the seat:

“I’ve come to realize more acutely than ever before the deficits in Congress and how my profile can actually benefit Congress. I’d like to do what I’m doing but on a larger stage — and I think Congress provides that, provides a forum for doing the greater good.”

Baseball’s loss is CIRM’s gain as Stanford’s Linda Boxer is appointed to Stem Cell Agency Board

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Dr. Linda Boxer: Photo courtesy Stanford University

One of the things that fascinates me is finding out how people end up in the job they have, the job they love. It is rare that the direction they started out on is the one they end on. Usually, people take several different paths, some intended, some unintended, to get to where they want to be.

A case in point is Dr. Linda Boxer, a renowned and respected researcher and physician at the Stanford School of Medicine, and now the newest member of the CIRM Board (you can read all about that in our news release).

In Dr. Boxer’s case, her original career path was a million miles from working with California’s stem cell agency:

“The first career choice that I recall as a young child was professional baseball—growing up in Minnesota, I was a huge Twins fan—I did learn fairly quickly that this was not likely to be a career that was available for a girl, and it wasn’t clear what one did after that career ended at a relatively young age.”

Fortunately for us she became interested in science.

“I have always been curious about how things work—science classes in grade school were fascinating to me. I was given a chemistry kit as a birthday gift, and I was amazed at what happened when different chemicals were mixed together: color changes, precipitates forming, gas bubbles, explosions (small ones, of course).

Then when we studied biology in middle school, I was fascinated by what one could observe with a microscope and became very interested in trying to understand how living organisms work.

It was an easy decision to plan a career in science.  The tougher decision came in college when I had planned to apply to graduate school and earn a PhD, but I was also interested in human health and disease and thought that perhaps going to medical school made more sense.  Fortunately, one of my faculty advisors told me about combined MD/PhD programs, and that choice seemed perfect for me.”

Along the way she says she got a lot of help and support from her colleagues. Now she wants to do the same for others:

“Mentors are incredibly important at every career stage.  I have been fortunate to have been mentored by some dedicated scientists and physicians.  Interestingly, they have all been men.  There were really very few women available as mentors at the time—of course, that has changed for the better now.  It never occurred to me then that gender made a difference, and I just looked for mentors who had successful careers as scientists and physicians and who could provide advice to someone more junior.

One of the aspects of my role now that I enjoy the most is mentoring junior faculty and trainees.  I don’t think one can have too many mentors—different mentors can help with different aspects of one’s life and career.  I think it is very important for established scientists to give back and to help develop the next generation of physicians and scientists.”

Dr. Boxer is already well known to everyone at CIRM, having served as the “alternate” on the Board for Stanford’s Dr. Lloyd Minor. But her appointment by State Controller Betty Yee makes her the “official” Board member for Stanford. She brings a valuable perspective as both a scientist and a physician.

The Minnesota Twins lost out when she decided to pursue a career in science. We’re glad she did.

 

Stanford scientists devise an algorithm that identifies gene pairs associated with cancer

Using data from human tumor samples, Stanford scientists have developed a new computer algorithm to identify pairs of genes that cause cancer. Their research aims to identify alternative ways to target cancer-causing mutations that have thus far evaded effective clinical treatment.

The study, which was published this week in Nature Communications, was led by senior authors Dr. Ravi Majeti and Dr. David Dill and included two CIRM Bridges interns Damoun Torabi and David Cruz Hernandez.

Identifying Partners in Crime

Cancer cells are notorious for acquiring genetic mutations due to the instability of their genomes and errors in the machinery that repairs DNA. Sometimes these errors create what are called synthetic lethal genes. These are pairs of genes that can cause a cell to die if both genes are defective due to acquired mutations, but a defect in only one of the genes allows a cell to live.

Cancer cells rely on pairs of genes with similar functions for their survival. If one gene is mutated, then the cancer cell depends on the other functional gene, aka its “partner in crime”, to keep it doing its mischief. Scientist are interested in targeting this second partner gene in synthetic lethal pairs in the hopes of developing less toxic cancer therapies that only kill cancer cells instead of healthy ones too.

The Stanford team went on the hunt for synthetic lethal partner genes in data from 12 different human cancers using an algorithm they developed called Mining Synthetic Lethals (MiSL). David Dill explained their strategy in a Stanford Medicine news release:

“We were looking for situations in which, if gene A is mutated, gene Y is amplified to compensate for the loss of function of gene A. Conversely, gene Y is only ever deleted in cells in which gene A is not mutated.”

David Dill. (Credit: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

They identified a total of 3,120 cancer-causing mutations and over 145,000 potential synthetic lethal partner genes associated with these mutations. Some of these partnerships were identified in other studies, validating MiSL as an effective tool for their purposes, while other partnerships were novel.

Targeting Partners in Crime

One of the new partnerships they discovered was between a mutation in the IDH1 gene, which is associated with acute myeloid leukemia, and a gene called ACACA. The team validated this pair with experiments in the lab proving that defects in both IDH1 and ACACA blocked leukemia cell growth. MiSL identified 89 potential synthetic lethal partners for the leukemia-causing IDH1 mutation, 17 of which they believe could be targeted by existing cancer drugs.

The authors concluded that using computer algorithms to sift through mountains of biological data is a powerful strategy for identifying genetic relationships leveraged by tumors and could advance drug development for different types of cancers.

Ravi Majeti concluded,

“We’re entering a new era of precision health. Using data from real human tumors gives us important, fundamental advantages over using cancer cell lines that often don’t display the same mutation profiles. We’ve found that, although many known cancer-associated mutations are difficult to target clinically, their synthetic lethal partners may be much more druggable.”

Ravi Majeti (Credit: Steve Fisch)

New target for defeating breast cancer stem cells uncovered

Stashed away in most of your tissues and organs lie small populations of adult stem cells. They help keep our bodies functioning properly by replenishing dying or damaged cells. Their ability to make more copies of themselves, as needed, ensures that there’s always an adequate supply set aside. But this very same self-renewing, life-sustaining property of adult stem cells is deadly in the hands of cancer stem cells. Also called tumor-initiating cells, cancer stem cells sustain tumor growth even after chemotherapy and are thought to be a primary cause of cancer relapse.

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Microscopic image of normal mouse mammary ducts. Mammary stem cells are found among basal cells (green). Image courtesy of Toni Celià-Terrassa and Yibin Kang, Princeton University

By studying adult and cancer stem cells side-by-side, Princeton researchers report this week in Nature Cell Biology that they’ve uncovered a common function in both cells types that not only helps explain an adult stem cell’s self-renewing ability but also points to new therapeutic approaches to targeting breast cancer stem cells.

Both adult and cancer stem cells continually resist signals from their environment that encourage them to specialize, or differentiate, into a particular cell type. Once specialized, the cells lose their ability to self-renew and will eventually die off. Now, if all the adult stem cells in an organ followed that instruction, they would eventually become depleted and the organ would lose the ability to repair itself. The same holds true for cancer stem cells which actually would be a good thing since it would lead to the tumor’s death.

The Princeton team first identified a molecule called miR-199a that allows mammary (breast) stem cells to resist differentiation signals by directly blocking the production of a protein called LCOR. Artificially boosting the amount of miR-199a led to a decrease in LCOR levels and an increase in stem cell function. But when LCOR levels were increased, mammary stem cell function was restricted.

The researchers then turned their attention to breast cancer stem cells and found the same miR-199a/LCOR function at work. In a similar fashion, boosting miR-199a levels enhanced cancer stem cell function and increased tumor formation while increasing LCOR restricted the tumor-forming ability of the breast cancer stem cells.

These lab results also matched up with tissue samples taken from breast cancer patients. High miR-199a levels in the samples correlated with low patient survival rates. But those with high levels of LCOR showed a better prognosis.

It turns out that cells in our immune system are responsible for boosting LCOR in mammary and breast cancer stem cells by releasing a protein called interferon alpha. So the presence of interferon alpha nudges mammary stem cells to mature into mammary gland cells and inhibits breast cancer stems from forming tumors. But in the presence of elevated miR-199a levels, mammary and breast cancer stem cells are protected and maintain their numbers by deactivating the interferon alpha/LCOR signal.

If you’re still with me, these results point to miR-199a as a promising target for restoring interferon-alpha’s cancer interfering properties. Team leader Dr. Yibin Kang highlighted this possibility in a Princeton University press release:

“Interferons have been widely used for the treatment of multiple cancer types. These treatments might become more effective if the interferon-resistant cancer stem cells can be rendered sensitive by targeting the miR-199a-LCOR pathway.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: better ovarian cancer drugs, creating inner ear tissue, small fish big splash

Two drugs are better than one for ovarian cancer (Karen Ring). Earlier this week, scientists from UCLA reported that a combination drug therapy could be an effective treatment for 50% of aggressive ovarian cancers. The study was published in the journal Precision Oncology and was led by Dr. Sanaz Memarzadeh.

Women with high-grade ovarian tumors have an 85% chance of tumor recurrence after treatment with a common chemotherapy drug called carboplatin. The UCLA team found in a previous study that ovarian cancer stem cells are to blame because they are resistant to carboplatin. It’s because these stem cells have an abundance of proteins called cIAPs, which prevent cell death from chemotherapy.

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Ovarian cancer cells (blue) expressing cIAP protein (red) on the left are more sensitive to a combination therapy than cancer cells that don’t express the protein on the right. (UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Precision Oncology)

Memarzadeh discovered that an experimental drug called birinapant made some ovarian cancer tumors more sensitive to chemotherapy treatment by breaking down cIAPs. This gave her the idea that combining the two drugs, birinapant and carboplatin, might be a more effective strategy for treating aggressive ovarian tumors.

By treating with the two drugs simultaneously, the scientists improved the survival rate of mice with ovarian cancer. They also tested this combo drug treatment on 23 ovarian cancer cell lines derived from women with highly aggressive tumors. The treatment killed off half of the cell lines indicating that some forms of this cancer are resistant to the combination treatment.

When they measured the levels of cIAPs in the human ovarian cancer cell lines, they found that high levels of the proteins were associated with ovarian tumor cells that responded well to the combination treatment. This is exciting because it means that clinicians can analyze tumor biopsies for cIAP levels to determine whether certain ovarian tumors would respond well to combination therapy.

Memarzadeh shared her plans for future research in a UCLA news release,

“I believe that our research potentially points to a new treatment option. In the near future, I hope to initiate a phase 1/2 clinical trial for women with ovarian cancer tumors predicted to benefit from this combination therapy.”

In a first, researchers create inner ear tissue. From heart muscle to brain cells to insulin-producing cells, researchers have figured out how to make a long list of different human cell types using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – cells taken from the body and reprogrammed into a stem cell-like state.

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Human inner ear organoid with sensory hair cells (cyan) and sensory neurons (yellow). An antibody for the protein CTBP2 reveals cell nuclei as well as synapses between hair cells and neurons (magenta). | Photo: Karl Koehler

This week, a research group at the Indiana University School of Medicine successfully added inner ear cells to that list. This feat, published in Nature Biotechnology, is especially important given the fact that the inner ear is one of the few parts of the body that cannot be biopsied for further examination. With these cells in hands, new insights into the causes of hearing loss and balance disorders may be on the horizon.

The inner ear contains 75,000 sensory hair cells that convert sound waves into electrical signals to the brain. Loud noises, drug toxicity, and genetic mutations can permanently damage the hair cells leading to hearing loss and dizziness. Over 15%  of the U.S. population have some form of hearing loss and that number swells to 67% for people over 75.

Due to the complex shape of the inner ear, the team grew the iPSCs into three dimensional balls of cells rather than growing them as a flat layer of cells on a petri dish. With educated guesses sprinkled in with some trial and error, the scientists, for the time, identified a recipe of proteins that stimulated the iPSCs to transform into inner ear tissue. And like any great recipe, it wasn’t so much the ingredient list but the timing that was key:

“If you apply these signals at the wrong time you can potentially generate a brain instead of an inner ear,” first author Dr. Karl Koehler said in an interview with Gizmodo. “The real breakthrough is that we figured out the exact timing to do each one of these [protein] treatments.”

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Senior author, Eri Hashino, Ph.D., and first author, Karl R. Koehler, Ph.D. Photo: Indiana University

Careful examination shows that the tissue, referred to as organoids, not only contained the sensory hair cells of the inner ear cell but also nerve cells, or neurons, that are responsible for relaying the sound waves to the brain. Koehler explained the importance of this result in a press release:

“We also found neurons, like those that transmit signals from the ear to the brain, forming connections with sensory cells. This is an exciting feature of these organoids because both cell types are critical for proper hearing and balance.”

Though it’s still early days, these iPSC-derived inner ear organoids are a key step toward the ultimate goal of repairing hearing loss. Senior author, Dr. Eri Hashino, talked about the team’s approach to reach that goal:

“Up until now, potential drugs or therapies have been tested on animal cells, which often behave differently from human cells. We hope to discover new drugs capable of helping regenerate the sound-sending hair cells in the inner ear of those who have severe hearing problems.”

This man’s research is no fish tale
And finally, we leave you this week with a cool article and video by STAT. It features Dr. Leonard Zon of Harvard University and his many, many tanks full of zebrafish. This little fish has made a huge splash in understanding human development and disease. But don’t take my word for it, watch the video!

Newest member of CIRM Board is a fan of horses, Star Trek and Harry Potter – oh, and she just happens to be a brilliant cancer researcher too.

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An addition to the family is always a cause for celebration, whether it be a new baby, a puppy, or, in our case, a new Board member. That’s why we are delighted to welcome City of Hope’s Linda Malkas, Ph.D., as the newest member of the CIRM Board.

Dr. Malkas has a number of titles including Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Beckman Research Institute; Deputy Director of Basic Research, Comprehensive Cancer Center, City of Hope; and joint head of the Molecular Oncology Program at the Cancer Center.

Her research focus is cancer and she has a pretty impressive track record in the areas of human cell DNA replication/repair, cancer cell biomarker and therapeutic target discovery. As evidence of that, she discovered a molecule that can inhibit certain activities in cancerous cells and hopes to move that into clinical trials in the near future.

California Treasure John Chiang made the appointment saying Dr. Malkas is “extraordinarily well qualified” for the role. It’s hard to disagree. She has a pretty impressive resume:

  • She served for five years on a National Cancer Institute (NCI) subcommittee reviewing cancer center designations.
  • She has served as chair on several NCI study panels and recently took on an advisory role on drug approval policy with the Food and Drug Administration.
  • She has published more than 75 peer-reviewed articles
  • She sits on the editorial boards of several high profile medical journals.

In a news release Dr. Malkas says she’s honored to be chosen to be on the Board:

“The research and technologies developed through this agency has benefited the health of not only Californians but the nation and world itself. I am excited to see what the future holds for the work of this agency.”

With all this in her work life it’s hard to imagine she has time for a life outside of the lab, and yet she does. She has four horses that she loves to ride – not all at the same time we hope – a family, friends, dogs and cats she likes spending time with. And as if that wasn’t enough to make you want to get to know her, she’s a huge fan of Star Trek, vintage sci-fi movies and Harry Potter.

Now that’s what I call a well-rounded individual. We are delighted to have her join the CIRM Team and look forward to getting her views on who are the greater villains, Klingons or Death Eaters.