Stories that caught our eye: SanBio’s Traumatic Brain Injury trial hits its target; A new approach to endometriosis; and a SCID kid celebrates Halloween in style

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Traumatic brain injury: graphic courtesy Brainline.org

Hopeful signs for treating brain injuries

There are more than 200,000 cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the US every year. The injuries can be devastating, resulting in everything from difficult sleeping to memory loss, depression and severe disability. There is no cure. But this week the SanBio Group had some encouraging news from its Phase 2 STEMTRA clinical trial.

In the trial patients with TBI were given stem cells, derived from the bone marrow of healthy adult donors. When transplanted into the area of injury in the brain, these cells appear to promote recovery by stimulating the brain’s own regenerative ability.

In this trial the cells demonstrated what the company describes as “a statistically significant improvement in their motor function compared to the control group.”

CIRM did not fund this research but we are partnering with SanBio on another clinical trial targeting stroke.

 

Using a woman’s own cells to heal endometriosis

Endometriosis is an often painful condition that is caused when the cells that normally line the inside of the uterus grow outside of it, causing scarring and damaging other tissues. Over time it can result in severe pain, infertility and increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer.

There is no effective long-term treatment but now researchers at Northwestern Medicine have developed an approach, using the woman’s own cells, that could help treat the problem.

The researchers took cells from women, turned them into iPS pluripotent stem cells and then converted those into healthy uterine cells. In laboratory tests these cells responded to the progesterone, the hormone that plays a critical role in the uterus.

In a news release, Dr. Serdar Bulun, a senior author of the study, says this opens the way to testing these cells in women:

“This is huge. We’ve opened the door to treating endometriosis. These women with endometriosis start suffering from the disease at a very early age, so we end up seeing young high school girls getting addicted to opioids, which totally destroys their academic potential and social lives.”

The study is published in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

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Happy Halloween from a scary SCID kid

A lot of the research we write about on the Stem Cellar focuses on potential treatments or new approaches that show promise. So every once in a while, it’s good to remind ourselves that there are already stem cell treatments that are not just showing promise, they are saving lives.

That is the case with Ja’Ceon Golden. Regular readers of our blog know that Ja’Ceon was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) also known as “bubble baby disease” when he was just a few months old. Children born with SCID often die in the first few years of life because they don’t have a functioning immune system and so even a simple infection can prove life-threatening.

Fortunately Ja’Ceon was enrolled in a CIRM-funded clinical trial at UC San Francisco where his own blood stem cells were genetically modified to correct the problem.

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Today he is a healthy, happy, thriving young boy. These pictures, taken by his great aunt Dannie Hawkins, including one of him in his Halloween costume, show how quickly he is growing. And all thanks to some amazing researchers, an aunt who wouldn’t give up on him, and the support of CIRM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to professor Zernicka-Goetz,

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Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, PhD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stem cell roundup: summer scientists, fat-blocking cells & recent human evolution

Stem cell photo of the week: high schooler becoming a stem cell pro this summer

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High school student Anna Guzman learning important lab skills at UC Davis

This summer’s CIRM SPARK Programs, stem cell research internships for high school students, are in full swing. Along with research assignments in top-notch stem cell labs, we’ve asked the students to chronicle their internship experiences through Instagram. And today’s stem cell photo of the week is one of those student-submitted posts. The smiling intern in this photo set is Anna Guzman, a rising junior from Sheldon High School who is in the UC Davis SPARK Program. In her post, she describes the lab procedure she is doing:

“The last step in our process to harvest stem cells from a sample of umbilical cord blood! We used a magnet to isolate the CD34 marked stem cells [blood stem cells] from the rest of the solution.”

Only a few days in and Anna already looks like a pro! It’s important lab skills like this one that could land Anna a future job in the stem cell field. Check out #cirmsparklab on Instagram to view the ever-growing number of posts.

Swiss team identifies a cell type that block formation of fat cells

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(Left) Mature human fat cells grown in a Petri dish (green, lipid droplets). (Right) A section of mouse fat tissue showing, in the middle, a blood vessel (red circle) surrounded by fat cell blocking cells called Aregs (arrows). [Bart Deplancke/EPFL]

Liposuction surgery helps slim and reshape areas of a person’s body through the removal of excess fat tissue. While the patient is certainly happy to get rid of those extra pounds, that waste product is sought after by researchers because it’s a rich source of regenerative cells including fat stem cells.

The exact populations of cells in this liposuction tissue has been unclear, so a collaboration of Swiss researchers – at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ) – used a cutting-edge technique allowing them to examine the gene activity within single cells.

The analysis was successful in identifying several newly defined subpopulations of cells in the fat tissue. To their surprise, one of those cell types did not specialize into fat cells but instead did the opposite: they inhibited other fat stem cells from giving rise to fat cells. The initial experiments were carried out in mice, but the team went on to show similar fat-blocking cells in human tissue. Further experiments will explore the tantalizing prospect of applying these cells to control obesity and the many diseases, like diabetes, that result from it.

The study was published June 20st in Nature.

Connection identified between recent human evolution & risk for premature birth
Evidence of recent evolution in a human gene that’s critical for maintaining pregnancy may help explain why some populations have a higher risk for giving birth prematurely than others. That’s according to a recent report by researchers at the University of Stanford School of Medicine.

The study, funded in part by CIRM’s Genomics Initiative, compared DNA from people with East Asian, European and African ancestry. They specifically examined the gene encoding the progesterone hormone receptor which helps keep a pregnant woman from going into labor too soon. The gene is also associated with preterm births, the leading cause of infant death in the U.S.

The team was very surprise to find that people with East Asian ancestry had an evolutionarily new version of the gene while the European and African populations had mixtures of new and ancient versions. These differences may explain why the risk for premature birth among East Asian populations is lower than among pregnant women of European and African descent, though environment clearly plays a role as well.

Pediatrics professor Gary Shaw, PhD, one of the team leaders, put the results in perspective:

“Preterm birth has probably been with us since the origin of the human species,” said Shaw in a press release, “and being able to track its evolutionary history in a way that sheds new light on current discoveries about prematurity is really exciting.”

The study was published June 21st in The American Journal of Human Genetics.

Stem Cell Roundup: New infertility tools, helping the 3 blind mice hear and cow ESCs

Cool Stem Cell Image of the Week

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Human egg grown from immature cells in ovarian tissue. (credit: David Albertini)

This week’s Cool Stem Cell Image of the Week comes to us from the lab of reproductive biologist Evelyn Telfer at the University of Edinburgh. Telfer and her team successfully grew human eggs cells from immature ovarian tissue.

This technology could revolutionize the way doctors approach infertility. For instance, when girls and young women undergo chemotherapy for cancer, their eggs are often damaged. By preserving a small piece of ovarian tissue before the cancer treatments, this method could be used to generate eggs later in life for in vitro fertilization. Much more work is necessary to figure out if these eggs are healthy and safe to use to help infertile women.

The study was recently published in Molecular Human Reproduction and was picked up this Science writer Kelly Servick.

Forget 3 blind mice, iPS cells could help 3 deaf mice hear again (Kevin McCormack)
For years scientists have been trying to use stem cells to restore hearing to people who are deaf or hearing impaired. Now a group of researchers in Japan may have found a way.

The team used human iPS cells to create inner ear cells, the kind damaged in one of the most common forms of hereditary deafness. They then transplanted them into the inner ears of mice developing in the womb that are suffering from a congenital form of hearing loss. The cells appeared to engraft and produce a protein, Connexin 30, known to be critical in hearing development.

The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, could be an important step towards developing a therapy for congenital hearing loss in people.

UC Davis team isolates cow embryonic stem cells for the first time

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An early stage cow embryo. Inner cell mass (red) is source of embryonic stem cells. (Credit: Pablo Ross/UC Davis) 

Although human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) were isolated way back in ’98, researchers haven’t had similar luck with embryonic stem cells from cows. Until this week, that is.  A UC Davis team just published a report in PNAS showing that they not only can isolate cow ESCs but their method works almost 100% of the time.

 

Genetic engineering of these cow stem cells could have huge implications for the cattle industry. Senior author Pablo Ross mentioned in a press release how this breakthrough could help speed up the process of generating superior cows that produce more milk, release less methane and are more resistant to disease:

“In two and a half years, you could have a cow that would have taken you about 25 years to achieve. It will be like the cow of the future. It’s why we’re so excited about this.”

These cow ESCs may also lead to better models of human disease. Because of their small size, rat and mouse models are not always a good representation of how potential therapies or drugs will affect humans. Creating stem cell models from larger animals may provide a better representation.

Knocking out sexually transmitted disease with stem cells and CRISPR gene editing

When used in tandem, stem cells and gene editing make a powerful pair in the development of cell therapies for genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia and bubble baby disease. But the applications of these cutting-edge technologies go well beyond cell therapies.

This week, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK and the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, report their use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and the CRISPR gene editing to better understand chlamydia, a very common sexually transmitted disease. And in the process, the researchers gained insights for developing new drug treatments.

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Human macrophage, a type of white blood cell, interacting with a Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria cell. Image: Sanger Institute / Genome Research Limited

Chlamydia is caused by infection with the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there were over 1.5 million cases of Chlamydia reported in the U.S. in 2015. And there are thought to be almost 3 million new cases each year. Men with Chlamydia usually do not face many health issues. Women, on the other hand, can suffer serious health complications like pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.

Although it’s easily treatable with antibiotics, the disease often goes unnoticed because infected people may not show symptoms. And because of the rising fear of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there’s a need to develop new types of drugs to treat Chlamydia.

To tackle this challenge, the research teams focused first on better understanding how the bacteria infects the human immune system. As first author Dr. Amy Yeung from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute explained in a press release, researchers knew they were up against difficult to treat foe:

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Amy Yeung

“Chlamydia is tricky to study because it can permeate and hide in macrophages [a type of white blood cell] where it is difficult to reach with antibiotics. Inside the macrophage, one or two chlamydia cells can replicate into hundreds in just a day or two, before bursting out to spread the infection.”

In the study, published in Nature Communications, the teams chose to examine human macrophages derived from iPSCs. This decision had a few advantages over previous studies.  Most Chlamydia studies up until this point had either used macrophages from mice, which don’t always accurately reflect what’s going on in the human immune system, or human macrophage cell lines, which have genetic abnormalities that allow them to divide indefinitely.

With these human iPSC-derived macrophages, the team then used CRISPR gene editing technology to systematically delete, or “knockout”, genes that may play a role in Chlamydia infection. Lead author Dr. Robert Hancock from UBC described the power of this approach:

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Robert Hancock

“We can knock out specific genes in stem cells and look at how the gene editing influences the resulting macrophages and their interaction with chlamydia. We’re effectively sieving through the genome to find key players and can now easily see genes that weren’t previously thought to be involved in fighting the infection.”

In fact, they found two genes that appear to play an important role in Chlamydia infection. When they knocked out either the IRF5 or IL-10RA gene, the macrophages were much more vulnerable to infection. The team is now eager to examine these two genes as possible targets for novel Chlamyia drug treatments. But as Dr. Gordon Dougan –the senior author from the Sanger Institute – explains, these studies could be far-reaching:

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Gordon Dougan

“This system can be extended to study other pathogens and advance our understanding of the interactions between human hosts and infections. We are starting to unravel the role our genetics play in battling infections, such as chlamydia, and these results could go towards designing more effective treatments in the future.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: building an embryo and reviving old blood stem cells

Building an embryo in the lab from stem cells
The human body has been studied for centuries yet little is known about the first 14 days of human development when the fertilized embryo implants into the mother’s uterus and begins to divide and grow. Being able to precisely examine this critical time window may help researchers better understand why 75% of conceptions never implant and why 30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

This lack of knowledge is due in part to a lack of embryos to study. Researchers rely on embryos donated by couples who’ve gone through in vitro fertilization to get pregnant and have left over embryos that are otherwise discarded. Using mouse stem cells, a research team from Cambridge University reports today in Nature that they’ve generated a cellular structure that has the hallmarks of a fertilized embryo.

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Stem cell-modeled mouse embryo (left) Mouse embryo (right); The red part is embryonic and the blue extra-embryonic.
Credit: Sarah Harrison and Gaelle Recher, Zernicka-Goetz Lab, University of Cambridge

This technique has been tried before without success. The breakthrough here was in the types of cells used. Rather that only relying on embryonic stems cells (ESCs), this study also included extra-embryonic trophoblast stem cells (TSCs), the cell type that goes on to form the placenta.

When grown on a 3D scaffold made from biological materials, the two cell types self-organized themselves into a pattern that closely resembles the early development of a true embryo. In a press release that was picked up by many media outlets, senior author Zernicka-Goetz spoke about the importance of including both TSCs and ESCs:

“We knew that interactions between the different types of stem cell are important for development, but the striking thing that our new work illustrates is that this is a real partnership – these cells truly guide each other. Without this partnership, the correct development of shape and form and the timely activity of key biological mechanisms doesn’t take place properly.”

The researchers think that lab-made embryos from mouse or human stem cells have little chance of developing into a fetus because other cell types critical for continued growth are not included. And there’s much to be learned by focusing on these very early events:

“We are very optimistic that this will allow us to study key events of this critical stage of human development without actually having to work on embryos.  Knowing how development normally occurs will allow us to understand why it so often goes wrong,” says Zernicka-Goetz.

Reviving old blood stem cells, part 1: repair the garbage collectors
One of the reasons that our bodies begin to deteriorate in old age is a weakening, dysfunctional immune system that increases the risk for serious infection, blood cancers and chronic inflammatory diseases like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Reporting this week in Nature, a UCSF research team presents evidence that a breakdown in our cell’s natural garbage collecting system may be partially to blame.

The team focused on a process called autophagy (literally meaning self “auto”-eating “phagy”) that keeps cells functioning properly by degrading faulty proteins and cellular structures. In particular, they examined autophagy in blood-forming stem cells, which give rise to all the cell types of the immune system. They found that autophagy was not working in 70 percent of blood stem cells from old mice. And these cells had all the hallmarks of an old cell. And the other 30 percent? In those cells, autophagy was fully functional and they looked like blood stem cells found in young mice.

The team went on to show that in blood stem cells, autophagy had an additional role that until now had not been observed: it helped slow the activity of the stem cells back to its default state by gobbling up excess mitochondria, the structures that produces a cell’s energy needs. Without this quieting of the stem cell, the over-active mitochondria led to chemical modification of the cell’s DNA that disrupted the blood stem cells’ ability to give rise to a proper balance of immune cells. In fact, young mice with genetic modifications that block autophagy generated blood stem cells with these old age-related characteristics.

But the researchers were also able to restore autophagy in blood stem cells collected from old mice by adding various drugs. Team lead Emmanuelle Passegué is optimistic this result could be translated into a therapeutic approach:

“This discovery might provide an interesting therapeutic angle to use in re-activating autophagy in all of the old HSCs, to slow the aging of the blood system and to improve engraftment during bone marrow or HSC transplantation,” Passegué said in a university press release.

Reviving old blood stem cells, part 2: fix the aging neighborhood
Another study this week focused on age-related disruptions in the function of blood stem cells but in this case an aging neighborhood is to blame. Blood stem cells form and hang out in areas of the bone marrow called niches. Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Ulm in Germany reported this week in EMBO that the age of the niche affects blood stem cell function.

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Microscopy of bone marrow. Red staining indicates osteopotin, blue staining indicates cell nuclei. Credit: University of Ulm

 

When blood stem cells from two-year old mice were transplanted into the bone marrow of eight-week old mice, the older stem cells took on characteristics of young stem cells including an enhance ability to form all the different cell types of the immune system. In trying to understand what was going on, the researchers focused on a bone marrow cell called an osteoblast which gives rise to bone. Osteoblasts produce osteopontin, a protein that plays an important role in the structure of the bone marrow. The team showed that as the bone marrow ages, osteopontin levels go down. And this reduction had effects on the health of blood stem cells. But, as team lead Hartmut Geiger mentions in a press release, this impact could be reversed which points to a potential new therapeutic strategy for age-related disease:

“We show that the place where HSCs form in the bone marrow loses osteopontin upon aging, but if you give back the missing protein to the blood-forming cells they suddenly rejuvenate and act younger. Our study points to exciting novel ways to have a better immune system and possibly less blood cancer upon aging by therapeutically targeting the place where blood stem cells form.”

Stories that caught our eye: frail bones in diabetics, ethics of future IVF, Alzheimer’s

The connection between diabetes and frail bones uncovered
Fundamentally, diabetes is defined by abnormally high blood sugar levels. But that one defect over time carries an increased risk for a wide range of severe health problems. For instance, compared to healthy individuals, type 2 diabetics are more prone to poorly healing bone fractures – a condition that can dramatically lower one’s quality of life.

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Bones of the healthy animals (top) form larger calluses during healing which lead to stronger repaired bones. Bones of the diabetic mice (bottom) have smaller calluses and the healed bones are more brittle. Image: Stanford University

To help these people, researchers are trying to tease out how diabetes impacts bone health. But it’s been a complicated challenge since there are many factors at play. Is it from potential side effects of diabetes drugs? Or is the increased body weight associated with type 2 diabetes leading to decreased bone density? This week a CIRM-funded team at Stanford pinpointed skeletal stem cells, a type of adult stem cell that goes on to make all the building blocks of the bone, as important pieces to this scientific puzzle.

Reporting in Science Translational Medicine, the team, led by Michael Longaker – co-director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine – found that, compared to healthy animals, type 2 diabetic mice have a reduced number of skeletal stem cells after bone fracture. A study of the local cellular “neighborhood” of these stem cells showed that the diabetic mice also had a reduction in the levels of a protein called hedgehog. Blocking hedgehog activity in healthy mice led to the slow bone healing seen in the diabetic mice. More importantly, boosting hedgehog levels near the site of the fracture in diabetic mice lead to bone healing that was just as good as in the healthy mice.

To see if this result might hold up in humans, the team analyzed hedgehog levels in bone samples retrieved from diabetics and non-diabetics undergoing joint replacement surgeries. Sure enough, hedgehog was depleted in the diabetic bone exactly reflecting the mouse results.

Though more studies will be needed to develop a hedgehog-based treatment in humans, Longaker talked about the exciting big picture implications of this result in a press release:

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Michael Longaker

“We’ve uncovered the reason why some patients with diabetes don’t heal well from fractures, and we’ve come up with a solution that can be locally applied during surgery to repair the break. Diabetes is rampant worldwide, and any improvement in the ability of affected people to heal from fractures could have an enormously positive effect on their quality of life.”

 

Getting the ethics ahead of the next generation of fertility treatments
The Business Insider ran an article this week with a provocative title, “Now is the time to talk about creating humans from stem cells.” I initially read too much into that title because I thought the article was advocating the need to start the push for the cloning of people. Instead, author Rafi Letzter was driving at the importance for concrete, ethical discussion right now about stem cell technologies for fertility treatments that may not be too far off.

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These mice were born from artificial eggs that were made from stem cells in a dish.
It’s great news for infertility specialist but carries many ethical dilemmas. 
(Image: K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

In particular, he alludes to a paper from October (read our blog about it) that reported the creation of female mouse eggs from stem cells. These eggs were fertilized, implanted into the mother and successfully developed into living mice. What’s more, one set of stem cells were derived from mouse skin samples via the induced pluripotent stem cell method. This breakthrough could one day make it possible for an infertile woman to simply go through a small skin biopsy or mouth swab to generate an unlimited number of eggs for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Just imagine how much more efficient, less invasive and less costly this procedure could be compared to current IVF methods that require multiple hormone injections and retrieval of eggs from a woman’s ovaries.

But along with that hope for couples who have trouble conceiving a child comes a whole host of ethical issues. Here, Letzter refers to a perspective letter published on Wednesday in Science Translation Medicine by scientists and ethicists about this looming challenge for researchers and policymakers.

It’s an important read that lays out the current science, the clinical possibilities and regulatory and ethical questions that must be addressed sooner than later. In an interview with Letzter, co-author Eli Adashi, from the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, warned against waiting too long to heed this call to action:

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Eli Adashi

“Let’s start the [ethical] conversation now. Like all conversations it will be time consuming. And depending how well we do it, and we’ve got to do it well, it will be demanding. It will not be wise to have that conversation when you’re seeing a paper in Science or Nature reporting the complete process in a human. That would not be wise on our collective part. We should be as much as possible ready for that.”

 

 

Tackling Frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s by hitting the same target.
To develop new disease therapies, you usually need to understand what is going wrong at a cellular level. In some cases, that approach leads to the identification of a specific protein that is either missing or in short supply. But this initial step is just half the battle because it may not be practical to make a drug out of the protein itself. So researchers instead search for other proteins or small molecules that lead to an increase in the level of the protein.

A CIRM-funded project at the Gladstone Institutes has done just that for the protein called progranulin. People lacking one copy of the progranulin gene carry an increased risk for  frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a degenerative disease of the brain that is the most common cause of dementia in people under 60 years of age. FTD symptoms are often mistaken for Alzheimer’s. In fact, mutations in progranulin are also associated with Alzheimer’s.

Previous studies have shown that increasing levels of progranulin in animals with diseases that mimic FTP and Alzheimer’s symptoms can reverse symptoms. But little was known how progranulin protein levels were regulated in the cells. Amanda Mason, the lead author on the Journal of Biological Chemistry report, explained in a press release how they tackled this challenge:

“We wanted to know what might regulate the levels of progranulin. Many processes in biology are controlled by adding or removing a small chemical group called phosphate, so we started there.”

These phosphate groups hold a lot of energy in their chemical bonds and can be harnessed to activate or turn off the function of proteins and DNA. The team systematically observed the effects of enzymes that add and remove phosphate groups and zeroed in on one called Ripk1 that leads to increases in progranulin levels. Now the team has set their sights on Ripk1 as another potential target for developing a therapeutic that could be effective against both FTP and Alzheimer’s. Steve Finkbeiner, the team lead, gave a big picture perspective on these promising results:

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Steve Finkbeiner

“This is an exciting finding. Alzheimer’s disease was discovered over 100 years ago, and we have essentially no drugs to treat it. To find a possible new way to treat one disease is wonderful. To find a way that might treat two diseases is amazing.”

 

Stem Cell Stories that caught our eye: a womb with a view, reversing aging and stabilizing stem cells

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Today we bring you a trifecta of stem cell stories that were partially funded by grants from CIRM.

A womb with a view: using 3D imaging to observe embryo implantation. Scientists have a good understanding of how the beginning stages of pregnancy happen. An egg cell from a woman is fertilized by a sperm cell from a man and the result is a single cell called a zygote. Over the next week, the zygote divides into multiple cells that form the developing embryo. At the end of that period, the embryo hatches out of its protective membrane and begins implanting itself into the lining of the mother’s uterus.

It’s possible to visualize the early stages of embryo development in culture dishes, which has helped scientists understand the biological steps required for an embryo to survive and develop into a healthy fetus. However, something that is not easy to observe is the implantation stage of the embryo in the uterus. This process is complex and involves a restructuring of the uterine wall to accommodate the developing embryo. As you can imagine, replicating these events would be extremely complicated and difficult to do in a culture dish, and current imaging techniques aren’t adequate either.

That’s where new CIRM-funded research from a team at UCSF comes to the rescue. They developed a 3D imaging technology and combined it with a previously developed “tissue clearing” method, which uses chemicals to turn tissues translucent, to provide clear images of the uterine wall during embryo implantation in mice. Their work was published this week in the journal Development.

According to a UCSF news release,

“Using their new approach, the team observed that the uterine lining becomes extensively folded as it approaches its window of receptivity for an embryo to implant. The geometry of the folds in which the incoming embryos dwell is important, the team found, as genetic mutants with defects in implantation have improper patterns of folding.”

Ultimately, the team aims to use their new imaging technology to get an inside scoop on how to prevent or treat pregnancy disorders and also how to improve the outcome of pregnancies by in vitro fertilization.

Senior author on the study, UCSF professor Diana Laird concluded:

“This new view of early pregnancy lets us ask fundamentally new questions about how the embryo finds its home within the uterus and what factors are needed for it to implant successfully. Once we can understand how these processes happen normally, we can also ask why certain genetic mutations cause pregnancies to fail, to study the potential dangers of environmental toxins such as the chemicals in common household products, and even why metabolic disease and obesity appears to compromise implantation.”

If you want to see this womb with a view, check out the video below.

Watch these two videos for more information:

Salk scientists reverse signs of aging in mice. For our next scintillating stem cell story, we’re turning back the clock – the aging clock that is. Scientists from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, reported an interesting method in the journal Cell  that reverses some signs of aging in mice. They found that periodic expression of embryonic stem cell genes in skin cells and mice could reverse some signs of aging.

The Salk team made use of cellular reprogramming tools developed by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Shinya Yamanaka. He found that four genes normally expressed in embryonic stem cells could revert adult cells back to a pluripotent stem cell state – a process called cellular reprogramming. Instead of turning adult cells back into stem cells, the Salk scientists asked whether the Yamanaka factors could instead turn back the clock on older, aging cells – making them healthier without turning them back into stem cells or cancer-forming cells.

The team found that they could rejuvenate skin cells from mice without turning them back into stem cells if they turned on the Yamanaka genes on for a short period of time. These skin cells were taken from mice that had progeria – a disease that causes them to age rapidly. Not only did their skin cells look and act younger after the treatment, but when the scientists used a similar technique to turn on the Yamanaka genes in progeria mice, they saw rejuvenating effects in the mice including a more rapid healing and regeneration of muscle and pancreas tissue.

(Left) impaired muscle repair in aged mice; (right) improved muscle regeneration in aged mice subjected to reprogramming. (Salk Institute)

(Left) impaired muscle repair in aged mice; (right) improved muscle regeneration in aged mice subjected to reprogramming. (Salk Institute)

The senior author on the study, Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, acknowledged in a Salk news release that this is early stage work that focuses on animal models, not humans:

“Obviously, mice are not humans and we know it will be much more complex to rejuvenate a person. But this study shows that aging is a very dynamic and plastic process, and therefore will be more amenable to therapeutic interventions than what we previously thought.”

This story was very popular, which is not surprising as aging research is particularly fascinating to people who want to live longer lives. It was covered by many news outlets including STATnews, Scientific American and Science Magazine. I also recommend reading Paul Knoepfler’s journal club-style blog on the study for an objective take on the findings and implications of the study. Lastly, you can learn more about the science of this work by watching the movie below by the Salk.

Movie:

Stabilizing unstable stem cells. Our final stem cell story is brought to you by scientists from the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center. They found that embryonic stem cells can harbor genetic instabilities that can be passed on to their offspring and cause complications, or even disease, later in life. Their work was published in two separate studies in Cell Stem Cell and Cell Reports.

The science behind the genetic instabilities is too complicated to explain in this blog, so I’ll refer you to the UCLA news release for more details. In brief, the UCLA team found a way to reverse the genetic instability in the stem cells such that the mature cells that they developed into turned out healthy.

As for the future impact of this research, “The research team, led by Kathrin Plath, found a way to correct the instability by resetting the stem cells from a later stage of development to an earlier stage of development. This fundamental discovery could have great impact on the creation of healthy tissues to cure disease.”

Eggciting News: Scientists developed fertilized eggs from mouse stem cells

A really eggciting science story came out early this week that’s received a lot of attention. Scientists in Japan reported in the journal Nature that they’ve generated egg cells from mouse stem cells, and these eggs could be fertilized and developed into living, breathing mice.

This is the first time that scientists have reported the successful development of egg cells in the lab outside of an animal. Many implications emerge from this research like gaining a better understanding of human development, generating egg cells from other types of mammals and even helping infertile women become pregnant.

Making eggs from pluripotent stem cells

The egg cells, also known as oocytes, were generated from mouse embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells derived from mouse skin cells in a culture dish. Both stem cell types are pluripotent, meaning that they can generate almost any cell type in the human body.

After generating the egg cells, the scientists fertilized the eggs through in vitro fertilization (IVF) using sperm from a healthy male mouse. They allowed the fertilized eggs to grow into two cell embryos which they then transplanted into female mice. 11 out of 316 embryos (or 3.5%) produced offspring, which were then able to reproduce after they matured into adults.

mice

These mice were born from artificial eggs that were made from stem cells in a dish. (K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

Not perfect science

While impressive, this study did identify major issues with its egg-making technique. First, less than 5% of the embryos made from the stem-cell derived eggs developed into viable mice. Second, the scientists discovered that some of their lab-grown eggs (~18%) had abnormal numbers of chromosomes – an event that can prevent an embryo from developing or can cause genetic disorders in offspring.

Lastly, to generate mature egg cells, the scientists had to add cells taken from mouse embryos in pregnant mice to the culture dish. These outside cells acted as a support environment that helped the egg cells mature and were essential for their development. The scientists are working around this issue by developing artificial reagents that could hopefully replace the need for these cells.

Egg cells made from embryonic stem cells in a dish. (K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

Egg cells made from embryonic stem cells in a dish. (K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

Will human eggs be next?

A big discovery such as this one immediately raises ethical questions and concerns about whether scientists will attempt to generate artificial human egg cells in a dish. Such technology would be extremely valuable to women who do not have eggs or have problems getting pregnant. However, in the wrong hands, a lot could go wrong with this technology including the creation of genetically abnormal embryos.

In a Nature news release, Azim Surani who is well known in this area of research, said that these ethical issues should be discussed now and include the general public. “This is the right time to involve the wider public in these discussions, long before and in case the procedure becomes feasible in humans.”

In an interview with Phys.org , James Adjaye, another expert from Heinrich Heine University in Germany, raised the point that even if we did generate artificial human eggs, “the final and ultimate test for fully functional human ‘eggs in a dish’ would be the fertilization using IVF, which is also ethically not allowed.”

Looking forward, senior author on the Nature study, Katsuhiko Hayashi, predicted that in a decade, lab-grown “oocyte-like” human eggs will be available but probably not at a scale for fertility treatments. Because of the technical issues his study revealed, he commented, “It is too preliminary to use artificial oocytes in the clinic.”

Gene required for sperm stem cells linked to male infertility, UCSD study suggests

Even in this day and age, when a couple is having trouble conceiving a child, it’s often the woman who is initially suspected of having infertility problems and is likely the first to seek out the advice of doctor. But according to Miles Wilkinson, professor of reproductive medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, infertility issues can just as likely be due to problems with sperm production in the male. In fact, about 4 million men of reproductive age in the U.S. are confronted with infertility challenges and in 30% percent of those cases, the cause of the infertility is not well understood.

Through some scientific detective work, Wilkinson and his research team have zeroed in on a gene called RhoX10 that plays an essential role in the development of adult stem cells which give rise to sperm production. The study results, funded in part by CIRM and published yesterday in Cell Reports, may help provide a path toward new treatment options for male infertility.

sperm

The process of sperm formation (spermatogenesis). Image: Wikipedia

To get at a cellular and molecular understanding of infertility, the team focused on the function of spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs). Through a multistep process within the male reproductive system, SSCs form into mature sperm cells capable of fertilizing an egg.  The SSC itself forms from primordial germ cells. The key genetic switches that help these germ cells give rise to SSCs was not well understood.  Earlier studies had shown that a group of adjacent genes, called the Rhox cluster, on the X-chromosome are expressed in the testes, suggesting a role in sperm production.

Using genetic engineering techniques, Wilkinson’s team bred mice lacking the 33 genes of the Rhox cluster. The resulting male mice showed a reduction in the number SSCs leading to low sperm number. Through a process of elimination, the team found that deleting just one of those genes, Rhox10, produced nearly the same flaw.

Rhox10 bus_HW, 9-26-16.jpg.jpg

Rhox 10: a genetic “bus” that “drives” sperm stem cells toward sperm production. Illustration by Hye-Won Song.

Further analysis, indicated Rhox10 was key to driving the development of germ cells into SSCs. So when the gene is deleted, not enough SSCs develop in the testis, leading to low sperm counts.  The researchers also found the Rhox10 is a master regulator of genes that control the germ cells’ movement from one part of the testis to another that, due to a different chemical environment, helps the germ cells transform into SSCs.

In addition to this mouse data, the team also co-authored a recent Human Molecular Genetics report with scientists at the University of Münster in Germany that connects Rhox genes and human male infertility. In the study, three RHOX genes were sequenced in 250 men with extremely low sperm counts and revealed six genetic mutations. Together, these results present solid evidence that mutations in Rhox are the culprit in at least some forms of male infertility. First author Hye-Won Song discussed this point in a university press release:

“Spermatogonial stem cells allow men — even in their 70s — to generate sperm and father children. Our finding that Rhox10 is critical for spermatogonial stem cells, coupled with the finding that human RHOX genes are mutated in infertile men, suggests that mutations in these genes cause human male infertility.”