Stem cell stories that caught our eye: skin grafts fight diabetes, reprogramming the immune system, and Asterias expands spinal cord injury trial sites

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week.

Skin grafts fight diabetes and obesity.

An interesting new gene therapy strategy for fighting type 1 diabetes and obesity surfaced this week. Scientists from the University of Chicago made genetically engineered skin grafts that secrete a peptide hormone called glucagon-liked peptide-1 (GLP-1). This peptide is released by cells in the intestine and can lower blood sugar levels by stimulating pancreatic islet cells to secrete insulin (a hormone that promotes the absorption of glucose from the blood).

The study, which was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, used CRISPR gene editing technology to introduce a mutation to the GLP-1 gene in mouse and human skin stem cells. This mutation stabilized the GLP-1 peptide, allowing it to hang around in the blood for longer. The team matured these stem cells into skin grafts that secreted the GLP-1 into the bloodstream of mice when treated with a drug called doxycycline.

When fed a high-fat diet, mice with a skin graft (left), genetically altered to secrete GLP-1 in response to the antibiotic doxycycline, gained less weight than normal mice (right). (Image source: Wu Laboratory, the University of Chicago)

On a normal diet, mice that received the skin graft saw a rise in their insulin levels and a decrease in their blood glucose levels, proving that the gene therapy was working. On a high fat diet, mice with the skin graft became obese, but when they were treated with doxycycline, GLP-1 secreted from their grafts reduced the amount of weight gain. So not only does their engineered skin graft technology look like a promising new strategy to treat type 1 diabetes patients, it also could be used to control obesity. The beauty of the technology is in its simplicity.

An article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News that covered this research explained that Xiaoyang Wu, the senior author on the study, and his team “worked with skin because it is a large organ and easily accessible. The cells multiply quickly and are easily transplanted. And, transplanted cells can be removed, if needed. “Skin is such a beautiful system,” Wu says, noting that its features make it a perfect medium for testing gene therapies.”

Wu concluded that, “This kind of therapy could be potentially effective for many metabolic disorders.” According to GenBio, Wu’s team “is now testing the gene-therapy technique in combination with other medications.” They also hope that a similar strategy could be used to treat patients that can’t make certain proteins like in the blood clotting disorder hemophilia.

How to reprogram your immune system (Kevin McCormack)

When your immune system goes wrong it can cause all manner of problems, from type 1 diabetes to multiple sclerosis and cancer. That’s because an overactive immune system causes the body to attack its own tissues, while an underactive one leaves the body vulnerable to outside threats such as viruses. That’s why scientists have long sought ways to correct those immune dysfunctions.

Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco think they have found a way to reprogram specific cells in the immune system and restore a sense of health and balance to the body. Their findings are published in the journal Nature.

The researchers identified a drug that targets effector T cells, which get our immune system to defend us against outside threats, and turns them into regulatory T cells, which control our immune system and stops it from attacking our own body.

Why would turning one kind of T cell into another be helpful? Well, in some autoimmune diseases, the effector T cells become overly active and attack healthy tissues and organs, damaging and even destroying them. By converting them to regulatory T cells you can prevent that happening.

In addition, some cancers can hijack regulatory T cells and suppress the immune system, allowing the disease to spread. By turning those cells into effector T cells, you can boost the immune system and give it the strength to fight back and, hopefully, kill the cancer.

In a news release, Gladstone Senior Investigator Sheng Ding, the lead scientists on the study, said their findings could have several applications:

“Our findings could have a significant impact on the treatment of autoimmune diseases, as well as on stem cell and immuno-oncology therapies.” 

Gladstone scientists Sheng Ding (right) and Tao Xu (left) discovered how to reprogram cells in our immune system. (Gladstone Institutes)

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial expands clinical sites

We have another update from CIRM’s clinical trial front. Asterias Biotherapeutics, which is testing a stem cell treatment for complete cervical (neck) spinal cord injury, is expanding its clinical sites for its CIRM-funded SCiStar Phase 1/2a trial. The company is currently treating patients at six sites in the US, and will be expanding to include two additional sites at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and the UC San Diego Medical Center, which is part of the UCSD Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic.

In a company news release, Ed Wirth, Chief Medical Officer of Asterias said,

Ed Wirth

“We are excited about the clinical site openings at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and UC San Diego Health. These sites provide additional geographical reach and previous experience with spinal cord injury trials to our SCiStar study. We have recently reported completion of enrollment in four out of five cohorts in our SCiStar study so we hope these institutions will also participate in a future, larger study of AST-OPC1.”

The news release also gave a recap of the trial’s positive (but still preliminary) results this year and their plans for completing trial enrollment.

“In June 2017, Asterias reported 9 month data from the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort that showed improvements in arm, hand and finger function observed at 3-months and 6-months following administration of AST-OPC1 were confirmed and in some patients further increased at 9-months. The company intends to complete enrollment of the entire SCiStar study later this year, with multiple safety and efficacy readouts anticipated during the remainder of 2017 and 2018.”

Scientists fix heart disease mutation in human embryos using CRISPR

Last week the scientific community was buzzing with the news that US scientists had genetically modified human embryos using CRISPR gene editing technology. While the story broke before the research was published, many journalists and news outlets weighed in on the study’s findings and the ethical implications they raise. We covered this initial burst of news in last week’s stem cell stories that caught our eye.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov (Leah Nash, New York Times)

After a week of suspense, the highly-anticipated study was published yesterday in the journal Nature. The work was led by senior author Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health and Sciences University (and a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of experts who review applications to us for funding) in collaboration with scientists from the Salk Institute and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science.

In brief, the study revealed that the teams’ CRISPR technology could correct a genetic mutation that causes a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) in 72% of human embryos without causing off-target effects, which are unwanted genome modifications caused by CRISPR. These findings are a big improvement over previous studies by other groups that had issues with off-target effects and mosaicism, where CRISPR only correctly modifies mutations in some but not all cells in an embryo.

Newly fertilized eggs before gene editing, left, and embryos after gene editing and a few rounds of cell division. (Image from Shoukrat Mitalipov in New York Times)

Mitalipov spoke to STATnews about a particularly interesting discovery that he and the other scientists made in the Nature study,

“The main finding is that the CRISPR’d embryos did not accept the “repair DNA” that the scientists expected them to use as a replacement for the mutated gene deleted by CRISPR, which the embryos inherited from their father. Instead, the embryos used the mother’s version of the gene, called the homologue.”

Sharon Begley, the author of the STATnews article, argued that this discovery means that “designer babies” aren’t just around the corner.

“If embryos resist taking up synthetic DNA after CRISPR has deleted an unwanted gene, then “designer babies,” created by inserting a gene for a desirable trait into an embryo, will likely be more difficult than expected.”

Ed Yong from the Atlantic also took a similar stance towards Mitalipov’s study in his article titled “The Designer Baby Era is Not Upon Us”. He wrote,

“The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.”

Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who’s a corresponding author on the paper and a former CIRM grantee from the Salk Institute, commented on the impact that this research could have on human health in a Salk news release.

Co-authors Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and Jun Wu. (Salk Institute)

“Thanks to advances in stem cell technologies and gene editing, we are finally starting to address disease-causing mutations that impact potentially millions of people. Gene editing is still in its infancy so even though this preliminary effort was found to be safe and effective, it is crucial that we continue to proceed with the utmost caution, paying the highest attention to ethical considerations.”

Pam Belluck from The New York Times also suggested that this research could have a significant impact on how we prevent disease in newborns.

“This research marks a major milestone and, while a long way from clinical use, it raises the prospect that gene editing may one day protect babies from a variety of hereditary conditions.”

So when will the dawn of CRISPR babies arrive? Ed Yong took a stab at answering this million dollar question with help from experts in the field.

“Not for a while. The technique would need to be refined, tested on non-human primates, and shown to be safe. “The safety studies would likely take 10 to 15 years before FDA or other regulators would even consider allowing clinical trials,” wrote bioethicist Hank Greely in a piece for Scientific American. “The Mitalipov research could mean that moment is 9 years and 10 months away instead of 10 years, but it is not close.” In the meantime, Mitalipov’s colleague Sanjiv Kaul says, “We’ll get the method to perfection so that when it’s possible to use it in a clinical trial, we can.”

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: CRISPRing Human Embryos, brain stem cells slow aging & BrainStorm ALS trial joins CIRM Alpha Clinics

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. Enjoy!

Scientists claim first CRISPR editing of human embryos in the US.

Here’s the big story this week. Scientists from Portland, Oregon claim they genetically modified human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. While their results have yet to be published in a peer review journal (though the team say they are going to be published in a prominent journal next month), if they prove true, the study will be the first successful attempt to modify human embryos in the US.

A representation of an embryo being fertilized. Scientists can inject CRISPR during fertilization to correct genetic disorders. (Getty Images).

Steve Connor from MIT Technology Review broke the story earlier this week noting that the only reports of human embryo modification were published by Chinese scientists. The China studies revealed troubling findings. CRISPR caused “off-target” effects, a situation where the CRISPR machinery randomly introduces genetic errors in a cell’s DNA, in the embryos. It also caused mosaicism, a condition where the desired DNA sequences aren’t genetically corrected in all the cells of an embryo producing an individual with cells that have different genomes. Putting aside the ethical conundrum of modifying human embryos, these studies suggested that current gene editing technologies weren’t accurate enough to safely modify human embryos.

But a new chapter in human embryo modification is beginning. Shoukhrat Mitalipov (who is a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of scientific experts that reviews our funding applications) and his team from the Oregon Health and Science University said that they have developed a method to successfully modify donated human embryos that avoids the problems experienced by the Chinese scientists. The team found that introducing CRISPR at the same time an embryo was being fertilized led to successful correction of disease-causing mutations while avoiding mosaicism and “off-target” effects. They grew these embryos for a few days to confirm that the genetic modifications had worked before destroying them.

The MIT piece quoted a scientist who knows of Mitalipov’s work,

“It is proof of principle that it can work. They significantly reduced mosaicism. I don’t think it’s the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before.”

Does this discovery, if it’s true, open the door further for the creation of designer babies? For discussions about the future scientific and ethical implications of this research, I recommend reading Paul Knoepfler’s blog, this piece by Megan Molteni in Wired Magazine and Jessica Berg’s article in The Conversation.

Brain stem cells slow aging in mice

The quest for eternal youth might be one step closer thanks to a new study published this week in the journal Nature. Scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York discovered that stem cells found in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus can slow the aging process in mice.

The hypothalamus is located smack in the center of your brain near the brain stem. It’s responsible for essential metabolic functions such as making and secreting hormones, managing body temperature and controlling feelings of hunger and thirst. Because the body’s metabolic functions decline with age, scientists have suspected that the hypothalamus plays a role in aging.

The mouse hypothalamus. (NIH, Wikimedia).

In the current study, the team found that stem cells in the hypothalamus gradually disappear as mice age. They were curious whether the disappearance of these stem cells could jump start the aging process. When they removed these stem cells, the mice showed more advanced mental and physical signs of aging compared to untreated mice.

They also conducted the opposite experiment where they transplanted hypothalamic stem cells taken from baby mice (the idea being that these stem cells would exhibit more “youthful” qualities) into the brains of middle-aged mice and saw improvements in mental and physical functions and a 10% increase in lifespan.

So what is it about these specific stem cells that slows down aging? Do they replenish the aging brain with new healthy cells or do they secrete factors that keep the brain healthy? Interestingly, the scientists found that these stem cells secreted vesicles that contained microRNAs, which are molecules that regulate gene expression by turning genes on or off.

They injected these microRNAs into the brains of middle-aged mice and found that they reversed symptoms of aging including cognitive decline and muscle degeneration. Furthermore, when they removed hypothalamic stem cells from middle-aged mice and treated them with the microRNAs, they saw the same anti-aging effects.

In an interview with Nature News, senior author on the study, Dongsheng Cai, commented that hypothalamic stem cells could have multiple ways of regulating aging and that microRNAs are just one of their tools. For this research to translate into an anti-aging therapy, “Cai suspects that anti-ageing therapies targeting the hypothalamus would need to be administered in middle age, before a person’s muscles and metabolism have degenerated beyond a point that could be reversed.”

This study and its “Fountain of Youth” implications has received ample attention from the media. You can read more coverage from The Scientist, GenBio, and the original Albert Einstein press release.

BrainStorm ALS trial joins the CIRM Alpha Clinics

Last month, the CIRM Board approved $15.9 million in funding for BrainStorm Cell Therapeutic’s Phase 3 trial that’s testing a stem cell therapy to treat patients with a devastating neurodegenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The stem cell therapy, called NurOwn®, is made of mesenchymal stem cells extracted from a patient’s bone marrow. The stem cells are genetically modified to secrete neurotrophic factors that keep neurons in the brain healthy and prevent their destruction by diseases like ALS.

BrainStorm has tested NurOwn in early stage clinical trials in Israel and in a Phase 2 study in the US. These trials revealed that the treatment was “safe and well tolerated” and that “NurOwn also achieved multiple secondary efficacy endpoints, showing clear evidence of a clinically meaningful benefit.  Notably, response rates were higher for NurOwn-treated subjects compared to placebo at all time points in the study out to 24 weeks.”

This week, BrainStorm announced that it will launch its Phase 3 CIRM-funded trial at the UC Irvine (UCI) CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The Alpha Clinics are a network of top medical centers in California that specialize in delivering high quality stem cell clinical trials to patients. UCI is one of four medical centers including UCLA, City of Hope, and UCSD, that make up three Alpha Clinics currently supporting 38 stem cell trials in the state.

Along with UCI, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will also be conducted at two other sites in the US: Mass General Hospital in Boston and California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Chaim Lebovits, President and CEO, commented,

“We are privileged to have UCI and Dr. Namita Goyal join our pivotal Phase 3 study of NurOwn. Adding UCI as an enrolling center with Dr. Goyal as Principal Investigator will make the treatment more accessible to patients in California, and we welcome the opportunity to work with this prestigious institution.”

Before the Phase 3 trial can launch at UCI, it needs to be approved by our federal regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is an independent ethics committee that reviews biomedical research on human subjects. Both these steps are required to ensure that a therapy is safe to test in patients.

With promising data from their Phase 1 and 2 trials, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will likely get the green light to move forward. Dr. Goyal, who will lead the trial at the UCI Alpha Clinic, concluded:

“NurOwn is a very promising treatment with compelling Phase 2 data in patients with ALS; we look forward to further advancing it in clinical development and confirming the therapeutic benefit with Brainstorm.”

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.

asterias

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.

Horse_1080.gif

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.

Bridging the divide: stem cell students helping families with rare diseases become partners in research

Bridges & Rare Science

CIRM’s Bridges students and Rare Science’s families with rare diseases

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest impact. For example, introducing a scientist to a patient can help them drive stem cell research forward faster than either one could do on their own.

Want proof? This year, students in CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy program at California State University (CSU) San Marcos teamed up with parents of children with rare diseases, and the partnerships had a profound impact on all of them, one we hope might produce some long-term benefits.

Christina Waters, who helped create the partnerships, calls it “science with love.”

“We wanted to change the conversation and have researchers and families communicate, making families equal stakeholders in the research. The students bonded with the families and I truly feel that we made a difference in the lives of future researchers, in knowing how much their work can make a life changing impact on the lives of patients’ families who now have hope.”

The CIRM Bridges program helps prepare California’s undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research. Students get a paid internship where they get hands-on training and education in stem cell research. They also work with patients and take part in outreach activities so they get an understanding of research that extends beyond the lab.

That’s where Christina Waters comes in. Christina is the founder of Rare Science, a non-profit group focused on rare diseases in children – we blogged about her work here – and she teamed up with CSU San Marcos to partner their Bridges students with five patient families with different rare diseases.

Cutting edge science

One of those families was Aaron Harding’s. Aaron’s son Jaxon has SYNGAP, a genetic disorder that can cause seizures, mental retardation, speech problems and autistic-like behavior. Two of the Bridges students who were doing their internship at ThermoFisher Scientific, Uju Nwizu and Emily Asbury, were given the task of using the gene-editing tool CRISPR Cas9 to help develop a deeper understanding of SYNGAP.

The students say it was an amazing experience:

Uju: “It had a huge impact on me. Every time I thought about SYNGAP I saw Jaxon’s face. This motivated me a lot.”

Emily: “People who work in labs everyday are most often working out the minutiae of research. They don’t often get a chance to see how their research can change or save the lives of real people. Meeting patients is so motivating because afterwards you aren’t just studying a mechanism, you now have a friend with the disease, so you can’t help but be personally invested in the search for a treatment.”

Emily and Uju are working to create iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) that have the SYNGAP mutation. They hope these can be used to study the disease in greater depth and, maybe one day, lead to treatments for some of the symptoms.

Aaron says for families like his, knowing there are scientists working on his child’s disorder is a source of comfort, and hope:

“Personalizing diseases by connecting scientists with those they seek to impact is so important. Emily and Uju took this opportunity and ran with it, and that says a lot about them, and the team at ThermoFisher, taking on an exploring the unknown. That attitude is the heart of a scientist.”

Hearing stories like this is very gratifying, not just for the students and families involved, but for everyone here at CIRM. When we created the Bridges program our goal was to help students get the skills and experience needed to pursue a career in science. Thanks to the people at CSU San Marcos and Rare Science these students got a whole lot more.

Christina Waters: “We learned, we shared hope, we celebrated the courage of our families and the commitment of the students. It takes a village, and it is all of us working together that will make great changes for kids with rare diseases.”

For Uju and Emily, their experience in the Bridges program has made them doubly certain they want to pursue a career in science.

Uju: “I love stem cells and the promise they hold. After this program I hope to be part of a team that is committed to accelerating new stem cell therapies for rare and chronic diseases.”

Emily: “I’ve learned that I love research. After I finish my bachelor’s degree at CSU San Marcos I plan to pursue a graduate degree in molecular or cellular biology.”

 

World Sickle Cell Day: A View from the Front Line

June 19th is World Sickle Cell Day. Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that causes normally round red blood cells to take on an abnormal sickle shape, resulting in clogged arteries, severe pain, increased risk of stroke and reduced life expectancy. To mark the occasion we asked Nancy M. Rene to write a guest blog for us. Nancy is certainly qualified; she is the grandmother of a child with sickle cell disease, and the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, a non-profit advocating for those with sickle cell disease and their families.

Nancy ReneOn this World Sickle Cell Day, 2017, we can look back to the trailblazers in the fight against Sickle Cell Disease.  More than 40 years ago, the Black Panther Party established the People’s Free Medical Clinics in several cities across the country. One of the functions of these free clinics: to screen people for sickle cell disease and sickle cell trait. This life-saving screening began  in 1971.

Around that same time, President Richard Nixon allocated $10 million to begin the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act. This included counseling and screening, educational activities, and money for research.

In the early part of the twentieth century, most children with sickle cell died before their fifth birthday. With newborn screening available nationwide, the use of penicillin to prevent common infections, and the finding that hydroxyurea was useful in fighting the disease, life expectancy began to improve.

For much of the twentieth century, people with sickle cell disease felt that they were fighting the fight alone, knowledgeable doctors were scarce and insurance was often denied.

Making progress

As we moved into the twenty-first century, patients and families found they had some powerful allies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) joined the battle.  In 2016 the NIH held its tenth annual international conference on sickle cell disease that featured speakers from all over the world.  Participants were able to learn about best practices in Europe, Africa, India, and South America.

Sickle Cell centers at Howard University, the Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research, and other major universities across the country are pointing the way to the best that medicine has to offer.

Last year, the prestigious American Society of Hematology (ASH) launched an initiative to improve understanding and treatment of sickle cell disease.  Their four-point plan includes education, training, advocacy, and expanding its global reach.

Just last month, May 2017, the FDA looked at Endari, developed by Emmaus Medical in Torrance, California.  It is the first drug specifically developed for sickle cell disease to go through the FDA’s approval process. We should have a decision on whether or not the drug goes to market in July.

The progress that had been made up to the beginning of the twenty-first century was basically about alleviating the symptoms of the disease: the sickling, the organ damage and the pervasive anemia. But a cure was still elusive.

But in 2004, California’s Stem Cell Agency, CIRM, was created and it was as if the gates had opened.

Researchers had a new source of funding to enable  them to work on Sickle Cell Disease and many other chronic debilitating diseases at the cellular level. Scientists like Donald Kohn at UCLA, were able to research gene editing and find ways to use autologous bone marrow transplants to actually cure people with sickle cell. While some children with sickle cell have been cured with traditional bone marrow transplants, these transplants must come from a matched donor, and for most patients, a matched donor is simply not available. CIRM has provided the support needed so that researchers are closing in on the cure. They are able to share strategies with doctors and researchers throughout the world

And finally, support from the federal government came with the passage of the Affordable Care Act and adequate funding for the NIH, CDC, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and FDA.

Going backwards

And yet, here we are, World Sickle Cell Day, 2017.

Will this be a case of one step forward two steps back?

Are we really going back to the time when people with Sickle Cell Disease could not get health insurance because sickle cell is a pre-existing condition, to the time when there was little money and no interest in research or professional training, to a time when patients and their families were fighting this fight alone?

For all of those with chronic disease, it’s as if we are living a very bad dream.

Time to wake up

For me, I want to wake up from that dream.  I want to look forward to a future where patients and families, where Joseph and Tiffany and Marissa and Ken and Marcus and all the others, will no longer have to worry about getting well-informed, professional treatment for their disease.

Where patients will no longer fear going to the Emergency Room

Where doctors and researchers have the funding they need to support them in their work toward the cure,

Where all children, those here in the United States along with those in Africa, India, and South America, will have access to treatments that can free them from pain and organ damage of sickle cell disease.

And where all people with this disease can be cured.

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.

BodyChlamydia

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:

picture-ay1

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.”

Live streaming genes in living cells coming to a computer near you!

Christmas has come early to scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. They’ve developed a technology that allows you to watch how individual genes move and interact in living cells. You can think of it as Facebook’s live streaming meets the adventurous Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus.

Using a gene editing system called CRISPR/Cas9, the team tagged genes of interest with fluorescent proteins that light up under a microscope – allowing them to watch in real time where these genes are in a cell’s nucleus and how they interact with other genes in the genome. This research, which was funded in part by a CIRM Research Leadership award, was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Watching genes in living cells

Traditional methods for observing the locations of genes within cells, such as fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), kill the cells – giving scientists only a snapshot of the complex interactions between genes. With this new technology, scientists can track genes in living cells and generate a 3D map of where genes are located within chromatin (the DNA/protein complex that makes up our chromosomes) during the different stages of a cell’s existence. They can also use these maps to understand changes in gene interactions caused by diseases like cancer.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Mazhar Adli, explained in a news release:

Mazhar Adli (Josh Barney, UVA Health System)

“This has been a dream for a long time. We are able to image basically any region in the genome that we want, in real time, in living cells. It works beautifully. With the traditional method, which is the gold standard, basically you will never be able to get this kind of data, because you have to kill the cells to get the imaging. But here we are doing it in live cells and in real time.”

Additionally, this new technique helps scientists conceptualize the position of genes in a 3D rather than in a linear fashion.

“We have two meters of DNA folded into a nucleus that is so tiny that 10,000 of them will fit onto the tip of a needle,” Adli explained. “We know that DNA is not linear but forms these loops, these large, three-dimensional loops. We want to basically image those kind of interactions and get an idea of how the genome is organized in three-dimensional space, because that’s functionally important.”

Not only can this CRISPR technology light up specific genes of interest, but it can also turn their activity on or off, allowing the scientists to observe the effects of one gene’s activity on others. The flexibility of this approach for visualizing genes in live cells is something that the research world currently lacks.

“We were told we would never be able to do this. There are some approaches that let you look at three-dimensional organization. But you do that experiment on hundreds of millions of cells, and you have to kill them to do it. Here, we can look at the single-cell level, and the cell is still alive, and we can take movies of what’s happening inside.”

This is a pretty nifty imaging tool for scientists that allows them to watch where genes are located and how they move as a cell develops and matures. Live-streaming the components of the genetic engine that keeps a cell running could also provide new insights into why certain genetic diseases occur and potentially open doors for developing better treatments.

Scientists tracked specific genomic locations in a living cell over time using their CRISPR/Cas9 technology. (Nature communications)

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

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

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

We have four great speakers:

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

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

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

When: Thursday, April 20th 12-1pm

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

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

Who: This event is FREE and open to everyone.

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

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

 

Fixing a mutation that causes muscular dystrophy (Karen Ring)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Parkinson’s disease became personal for one stem cell researcher

April is Parkinson’s disease Awareness Month. This year the date is particularly significant because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of British apothecary James Parkinson’s “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”, which is now recognized as a seminal work in describing the disease.

Schuele_headshotTo mark the occasion we talked with Dr. Birgitt Schuele, Director Gene Discovery and Stem Cell Modeling at the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center in Sunnyvale, California. Dr. Schuele recently received funding from CIRM for a project using new gene-editing technology to try and halt the progression of Parkinson’s.

 

 

What got you interested in Parkinson’s research?

People ask if I have family members with Parkinson’s because a lot of people get into this research because of a family connection, but I don’t.  I was always excited by neuroscience and how the brain works, and I did my medical residency in neurology and had a great mentor who specialized in the neurogenetics of Parkinson’s. That helped fuel my interest in this area.

I have been in this field for 15 years, and over time I have gotten to know a lot of people with Parkinson’s and they have become my friends, so now I’m trying to find answers and also a cure for Parkinson’s. For me this has become personal.

I have patients that I talk to every couple of months and I can see how their disease is progressing, and especially for people with early or young onset Parkinson’s. It’s devastating. It has a huge effect on the person and their family, and on relationships, even how they have to talk to their kids about their risk of getting the disease themselves. It’s hard to see that and the impact it has on people’s lives. And because Parkinson’s is progressive, I get to see, over the years, how it affects people, it’s very hard.

Talk about the project you are doing that CIRM is funding

It’s very exciting. The question for Parkinson’s is how do you stop disease progression, how do you stop the neurons from dying in areas affected by the disease. One protein, identified in 1997 as a genetic form of Parkinson’s, is alpha-synuclein. We know from studying families that have Parkinson’s that if you have too much alpha-synuclein you get early onset, a really aggressive form of Parkinson’s.

I followed a family that carries four copies of this alpha-synuclein gene (two copies is the normal figure) and the age of onset in this family was in their mid 30’s. Last year I went to a funeral for one of these family members who died from Parkinson’s at age 50.

We know that this protein is bad for you, if you have too much it kills brains cells. So we have an idea that if you lower levels of this protein it might be an approach to stop or shield those cells from cell death.

We are using CRISPR gene editing technology to approach this. In the Parkinson’s field this idea of down-regulation of alpha-synuclein protein isn’t new, but previous approaches worked at the protein level, trying to get rid of it by using, for example, immunotherapy. But instead of attacking the protein after it has been produced we are starting at the genomic level. We want to use CRISPR as a way to down-regulate the expression of the protein, in the same way we use a light dimmer to lower the level of light in a room.

But this is a balancing act. Too much of the protein is bad, but so is too little. We know if you get rid of the protein altogether you get negative effects, you cause complications. So we want to find the right level and that’s complex because the right level might vary from person to person.

We are starting with the most extreme levels, with people who have twice as much of this protein as is normal. Once we understand that better, then we can look at people who have levels that are still higher than normal but not at the upper levels we see in early-onset Parkinson’s. They have more subtle changes in their production or expression of this protein. It’s a little bit of a juggling act and it might be different for different patients. We start with the most severe ones and work our way to the most common ones.

One of the frustrations I often hear from patients is that this is all taking so long. Why is that?

Parkinson’s has been overall frustrating for researchers as well. Around 100 years ago, Dr. Lewy first described the protein deposits and the main neuropathology in Parkinson’s. About 20 years ago, mutations in the alpha-synuclein gene were discovered, and now we know approximately 30 genes that are associated with, or can cause Parkinson’s. But it was all very descriptive. It told us what is going on but not why.

Maybe we thought it was straight forward and maybe researchers only focused on what we knew at that point. In 1957, the neurotransmitter dopamine was identified and since the 1960s people have focused on Parkinson’s as a dopamine-deficient problem because we saw the amazing effects L-Dopa had on patients and how it could help ease their symptoms.

But I would say in the last 15 years we have looked at it more closely and realized it’s more complicated than that. There’s also a loss of sense of smell, there’s insomnia, episodes of depression, and other things that are not physical symptoms. In the last 10 years or so we have really put the pieces together and now see Parkinson’s as a multi-system disease with neuronal cell death and specific protein deposits called Lewy Bodies. These Lewy Bodies contain alpha-synuclein and you find them in the brain, the gut and the heart and these are organs people hadn’t looked at because no one made the connection that constipation or depression could be linked to the disease. It turns out that Parkinson’s is much more complicated than just a problem in one particular region of the brain.

The other reason for slow progress is that we don’t have really good models for the disease that are predictive for clinical outcomes. This is why probably many clinical trials in the neurodegenerative field have failed to date. Now we have human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from people with Parkinson’s, and iPSC-derived neurons allow us to better model the disease in the lab, and understand its underlying mechanisms  more deeply. The technology has now advanced so that the ability to differentiate these cells into nerve cells is better, so that you now have iPSC-derived neurons in a dish that are functionally active, and that act and behave like dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. This is an important advance.

Will this lead to a clinical trial?

That’s the idea, that’s our hope.

We are working with professor Dr. Deniz Kirik at the University of Lund in Sweden. He’s an expert in the field of viral vectors that can be used in humans – it’s a joint grant between us – and so what we learn from the human iPS cultures, he’ll transfer to an animal model and use his gene vector technology to see if we can see the same effects in vivo, in mice.

We are using a very special Parkinson’s mouse model – developed at UC San Francisco – that has the complete human genomic structure of the alpha-synuclein gene. If all goes well, we hope that ultimately we could be ready in a couple of years to think about preclinical testing and then clinical trials.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that I can contribute to stopping disease progression in Parkinson’s. If we can develop a drug that can get rid of accumulated protein in someone’s brain that should stop the cells from dying. If someone has early onset PD and a slight tremor and minor walking problems, stopping the disease and having a low dose of dopamine therapy to control symptoms is almost a cure.

The next step is to develop better biomarkers to identify people at risk of developing Parkinson’s, so if you know someone is a few years away from developing symptoms, and you have the tools in place, you can start treatment early and stop the disease from kicking in, even before you clinically have symptoms.

Thinking about people who have been diagnosed with a disease, who are ten years into the disease, who already have side effects from the disease, it’s a little harder to think of regenerative medicine, using embryonic or iPSCs for this. I think that it will take longer to see results with this approach, but that’s the long-term hope for the future. There are many  groups working in this space, which is critical to advance the field.

Why is Parkinson’s Awareness Month important?

It’s important because, while a lot of people know about the disease, there are also a lot of misconceptions about Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is confused with Alzheimer’s or dementia and cognitive problems, especially the fact that it’s more than just a gait and movement problem, that it affects many other parts of the body too.