Stem cells reveal developmental defects in Huntington’s disease

Three letters, C-A-G, can make the difference between being healthy and having a genetic brain disorder called Huntington’s disease (HD). HD is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects movement, cognition and personality. Currently more than 30,000 Americans have HD and there is no cure or treatment to stop the disease from progressing.

A genetic mutation in the huntingtin gene. caused by an expanded repeat of CAG nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA that make our genes, is responsible for causing HD. Normal people have less than 26 CAG repeats while those with 40 or more repeats will get HD. The reasons are still unknown why this trinucleotide expansion causes the disease, but scientists hypothesize that the extra CAG copies in the huntingtin gene produce a mutant version of the Huntingtin protein, one that doesn’t function the way the normal protein should.

The HD mutation causes neurodegeneration.

As with many diseases, things start to go wrong in the body long before symptoms of the disease reveal themselves. This is the case for HD, where symptoms typically manifest in patients between the ages of 30 and 50 but problems at the molecular and cellular level occur decades before. Because of this, scientists are generating new models of HD to unravel the mechanisms that cause this disease early on in development.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from HD patients with expanded CAG repeats are an example of a cell-based model that scientists are using to understand how HD affects brain development. In a CIRM-funded study published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists from the HD iPSC Consortium used HD iPSCs to study how the HD mutation causes problems with neurodevelopment.

They analyzed neural cells made from HD patient iPSCs and looked at what genes displayed abnormal activity compared to healthy neural cells. Using a technique called RNA-seq analysis, they found that many of these “altered” genes in HD cells played important roles in the development and maturation of neurons, the nerve cells in the brain. They also observed differences in the structure of HD neurons compared to healthy neurons when grown in a lab. These findings suggest that HD patients likely have problems with neurodevelopment and adult neurogenesis, the process where the adult stem cells in your brain generate new neurons and other brain cells.

After pinpointing the gene networks that were altered in HD neurons, they identified a small molecule drug called isoxazole-9 (Isx-9) that specifically targets these networks and rescues some of the HD-related symptoms they observed in these neurons. They also tested Isx-9 in a mouse model of HD and found that the drug improved their cognition and other symptoms related to impaired neurogenesis.

The authors conclude from their findings that the HD mutation disrupts gene networks that affect neurodevelopment and neurogenesis. These networks can be targeted by Isx-9, which rescues HD symptoms and improves the mental capacity of HD mice, suggesting that future treatments for HD should focus on targeting these early stage events.

I reached out to the leading authors of this study to gain more insights into their work. Below is a short interview with Dr. Leslie Thompson from UC Irvine, Dr. Clive Svendsen from Cedars-Sinai, and Dr. Steven Finkbeiner from the Gladstone Institutes. The responses were mutually contributed.

Leslie Thompson

Steven Finkbeiner

Clive Svendsen

 

 

 

 

 

 Q: What is the mission of the HD iPSC Consortium?

To create a resource for the HD community of HD derived stem cell lines as well as tackling problems that would be difficult to do by any lab on its own.  Through the diverse expertise represented by the consortium members, we have been able to carry out deep and broad analyses of HD-associated phenotypes [observable characteristics derived from your genome].  The authorship of the paper  – the HD iPSC consortium (and of the previous consortium paper in 2012) – reflects this goal of enabling a consortium and giving recognition to the individuals who are part of it.

Q: What is the significance of the findings in your study and what novel insights does it bring to the HD field?

 Our data revealed a surprising neurodevelopmental effect of highly expanded repeats on the HD neural cells.  A third of the changes reflected changes in networks that regulate development and maturation of neurons and when compared to neurodevelopment pathways in mice, showed that maturation appeared to be impacted.  We think that the significance is that there may be very early changes in HD brain that may contribute to later vulnerability of the brain due to the HD mutation.  This is compounded by the inability to mount normal adult neurogenesis or formation of new neurons which could compensate for the effects of mutant HTT.  The genetic mutation is present from birth and with differentiated iPSCs, we are picking up signals earlier than we expected that may reflect alterations that create increased susceptibility or limited homeostatic reserves, so with the passage of time, symptoms do result.

What we find encouraging is that using a small molecule that targets the pathways that came out of the analysis, we protected against the impact of the HD mutation, even after differentiation of the cells or in an adult mouse that had had the mutation present throughout its development.

Q: There’s a lot of evidence suggesting defects in neurodevelopment and neurogenesis cause HD. How does your study add to this idea?

Agree completely that there are a number of cell, mouse and human studies that suggest that there are problems with neurodevelopment and neurogenesis in HD.  Our study adds to this by defining some of the specific networks that may be regulating these effects so that drugs can be developed around them.  Isx9, which was used to target these pathways specifically, shows that even with these early changes, one can potentially alleviate the effects. In many of the assays, the cells were already through the early neurodevelopmental stages and therefore would have the deficits present.  But they could still be rescued.

Q: Has Isx-9 been used previously in cell or animal models of HD or other neurodegenerative diseases? Could it help HD patients who already are symptomatic?

The compound has not been used that we know of in animal models to treat neurodegeneration, although was shown to affect neurogenesis and memory in mice. Isx9 was used in a study by Stuart Lipton in Parkinson’s iPSC-derived neurons in one study and it had a protective effect on apoptosis [cell death] in a study by Ryan SD et al., 2013, Cell.

We think this type of compound could help patients who are symptomatic.  Isx-9 itself is a fairly pleiotropic drug [having multiple effects] and more research would be needed [to test its safety and efficacy].

Q: Have you treated HD mice with Isx-9 during early development to see whether the molecule improves HD symptoms?

Not yet, but we would like to.

Q: What are your next steps following this study and do you have plans to translate this research into humans?

We are following up on the research in more mature HD neurons and to determine at what stages one can rescue the HD phenotypes in mice.  Also, we would need to do pharmacodynamics and other types of assays in preclinical models to assess efficacy and then could envision going into human trials with a better characterized drug.  Our goal is to ultimately translate this to human treatments in general and specifically by targeting these altered pathways.

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:

longaker

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:

finkbeiner-profile

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.”

 

Using stem cells to fix bad behavior in the brain

 

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Gladstone Institutes Steven Finkbeiner and Gaia Skibinski: Photo courtesy Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes

Diseases of the brain have many different names, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to ALS and Huntington’s, but they often have similar causes. Researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco are using that knowledge to try and find an approach that might be effective against all of these diseases. In a new CIRM-funded study, they have identified one protein that could help do just that.

Many neurodegenerative diseases are caused by faulty proteins, which start to pile up and cause damage to neurons, the brain cells that are responsible for processing and transmitting information. Ultimately, the misbehaving proteins cause those cells to die.

The researchers at the Gladstone found a way to counter this destructive process by using a protein called Nrf2. They used neurons from humans (made from induced pluripotent stem cells – iPSCs – hence the stem cell connection here) and rats. They then tested these cells in neurons that were engineered to have two different kinds of mutations found in  Parkinson’s disease (PD) plus the Nrf2 protein.

Using a unique microscope they designed especially for this study, they were able to track those transplanted neurons and monitor what happened to them over the course of a week.

The neurons that expressed Nrf2 were able to render one of those PD-causing proteins harmless, and remove the other two mutant proteins from the brain cells.

In a news release to accompany the study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, first author Gaia Skibinski, said Nrf2 acts like a house-cleaner brought in to tidy up a mess:

“Nrf2 coordinates a whole program of gene expression, but we didn’t know how important it was for regulating protein levels until now. Over-expressing Nrf2 in cellular models of Parkinson’s disease resulted in a huge effect. In fact, it protects cells against the disease better than anything else we’ve found.”

Steven Finkbeiner, the senior author on the study and a Gladstone professor, said this model doesn’t just hold out hope for treating Parkinson’s disease but for treating a number of other neurodegenerative problems:

“I am very enthusiastic about this strategy for treating neurodegenerative diseases. We’ve tested Nrf2 in models of Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS, and it is the most protective thing we’ve ever found. Based on the magnitude and the breadth of the effect, we really want to understand Nrf2 and its role in protein regulation better.”

The next step is to use this deeper understanding to identify other proteins that interact with Nrf2, and potentially find ways to harness that knowledge for new therapies for neurodegenerative disorders.

Understanding two heart problems by studying the domino effect of one gene network

Although heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, are specialized to help pump blood to the organs, they nonetheless carry all the genetic instructions for becoming a nerve cell, an intestinal cell, a liver or any cell type in the body. But at the moment in time that the fetal heart begins to develop, master switch proteins, called transcription factors, act like the first tile in an extremely complex pattern of dominos and set off a chain of events which lead to the activation of heart muscle specific genes in cardiomyocytes as well as the silencing of genes important for the development other cells types.

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cardiomyocytes

It’s truly amazing that this process comes together to create functioning hearts in the about 355,000 babies that are born in the world each day. But it isn’t always flawless as heart defects occur in about 1% of all live births. By studying a family with a history of heart defects, scientists at the Gladstone Institutes have gained a deeper understanding of how gene networks go awry,  causing heart defects as well as heart disease later in life. This CIRM-funded work was published today in Cell.

Half the children in the family studied by the Gladstone team were born with a hole in the wall between the two chambers of the heart. Back in 2003, the family approached Deepak Srivastava, head of the cardiovascular institute at Gladstone, for help. A genetic analysis by Srivastava’s team found that all of the affected children carried a mutation in the GATA4 gene, which encodes a heart specific transcription factor protein. Seven years later the children developed heart disease that led to weaker heart pumping. Although the two heart problems were not related, they suspected both were caused by the GATA4 mutation and sought to understand how that could be the case.

Srivastava’s team sought to understand how the GATA4 mutation could be causing both health problems. They collected skin samples from the affected children and generated cardiomyocytes using the induced pluripotent stem cell technique. Cells were also collected from the children’s healthy siblings. In the laboratory, the cells were analyzed for how well they functioned, such as their ability to contract. All of these tests showed that the cells carrying the GATA4 mutation had impaired function compared to the healthy cells. These findings provide a basis for the heart disease found in the children during their teens.

In terms of the heart wall defect, the team examined the GATA4 protein’s interaction with the protein TBX5, another transcription factor that is also mutated in cases of this defect. Both proteins regulate genes by directly binding to DNA as well as interacting with each other. In cells with the defective GATA4, the research discovered TBX5 did not bind well to the DNA. The lack of TBX5 led to a disruption in the activation of genes that play a role in the development of the heart wall.

TBX5 and GATA4 also work together in cardiomyocytes to silence genes that play a role in other cell types. But the scientists found that the because the GATA4 mutation hindered its interaction with TBX5, those non-heart specific genes we’re no longer repressed causing further disruption to proper cardiomyocyte development. Srivastava summed up these results in an institute press release:

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Deepak Srivastava

“By studying the patients’ heart cells in a dish, we were able to figure out why their hearts were not pumping properly. Investigating their genetic mutation revealed a whole network of genes that went awry, first causing septal [heart wall] defects and then the heart muscle dysfunction.”

Now, because GATA4 and TBX5 are those first domino tiles in very intricate networks of genes, targeting those proteins for future therapy development wouldn’t be wise. Their effects are so widespread that blocking their actions would do more harm than good. But finding drugs that might affect only a branch of GATA4/TBX5 actions could result in new therapy approaches to heart defects and disease.

deepak-yen-sin-22 Deepak Srivastava and Yen-Sin Ang [Photo: Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes]

Yen-Sin Ang, the first author on the report, thinks these finding could prove fruitful for other diseases as well:

“It’s amazing that by studying genes in a two-dimensional cluster of heart cells, we were able to discover insights into a disease that affects a complicated three-dimensional organ. We think this conceptual framework could be used to study other diseases caused by mutations in proteins that serve as master regulators of whole gene networks.”

Translating great stem cell ideas into effective therapies

alzheimers

CIRM funds research trying to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle

In science, there are a lot of terms that could easily mystify people without a research background; “translational” is not one of them. Translational research simply means to take findings from basic research and advance them into something that is ready to be tested in people in a clinical trial.

Yesterday our Governing Board approved $15 million in funding for four projects as part of our Translational Awards program, giving them the funding and support that we hope will ultimately result in them being tested in people.

Those projects use a variety of different approaches in tackling some very different diseases. For example, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco received $5.9 million to develop a new way to help the more than five million Americans battling Alzheimer’s disease. They want to generate brain cells to replace those damaged by Alzheimer’s, using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – an adult cell that has been changed or reprogrammed so that it can then be changed into virtually any other cell in the body.

CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and Alzheimer’s – which has no cure and no effective long-term treatments – clearly represents an unmet medical need.

Another project approved by the Board is run by a team at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). They got almost $4.5 million for their research helping people with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that causes intense pain, and can result in strokes and organ damage. Sickle cell affects around 100,000 people in the US, mostly African Americans.

The CHORI team wants to use a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to develop a method of editing the defective gene that causes Sickle Cell, creating a healthy, sickle-free blood supply for patients.

Right now, the only effective long-term treatment for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow transplant, but that requires a patient to have a matched donor – something that is hard to find. Even with a perfect donor the procedure can be risky, carrying with it potentially life-threatening complications. Using the patient’s own blood stem cells to create a therapy would remove those complications and even make it possible to talk about curing the disease.

While damaged cartilage isn’t life-threatening it does have huge quality of life implications for millions of people. Untreated cartilage damage can, over time lead to the degeneration of the joint, arthritis and chronic pain. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) were awarded $2.5 million to develop an off-the-shelf stem cell product that could be used to repair the damage.

The fourth and final award ($2.09 million) went to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, which hopes to create a stem cell therapy for osteonecrosis. This is a painful, progressive disease caused by insufficient blood flow to the bones. Eventually the bones start to rot and die.

As Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board, said in a news release, we are hoping this is just the next step for these programs on their way to helping patients:

“These Translational Awards highlight our goal of creating a pipeline of projects, moving through different stages of research with an ultimate goal of a successful treatment. We are hopeful these projects will be able to use our newly created Stem Cell Center to speed up their progress and pave the way for approval by the FDA for a clinical trial in the next few years.”

A new and improved method for making healthy heart tissue is here

Scientists from the Gladstone Institutes have done it again. They’ve made a better and faster way of generating healthy heart tissue in mice with damaged hearts. With further advancements, their findings could potentially be translated into a new way of treating heart failure in patients.

Previously, the Gladstone team discovered that they could transform scar tissue in the damaged hearts of mice into healthy, beating heart muscle cells by a process called direct reprogramming. The team found that turning on three transcription factors, Gata4, Mef2c and Tbx5 (collectively called GMT), in the damaged hearts of mice activated heart genes that turned scar tissue cells, also known as cardiac fibroblasts, into beating heart cells or cardiomyocytes.

Their GMT direct cardiac reprogramming technology was only able to turn 10 percent of cardiac fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes in mice over the period of six to eight week. In their new CIRM-funded study published in Circulation, they improved upon their original reprogramming method by identifying two chemicals that improved the efficiency of making new heart cells. Not only were they able to create eight times the number of beating cardiomyocytes from mouse cardiac fibroblasts, but they were also able to speed up the reprogramming process to a period of just one week.

To find these chemicals, they screened a library of 5,500 small molecules. The chemicals that looked most promising for cardiac reprogramming were inhibitors of the TGF-β and WNT signaling pathways. The importance of these chemicals was explained in a Gladstone news release:

“The first chemical inhibits a growth factor that helps cells grow and divide and is important for repairing tissue after injury. The second chemical inhibits an important pathway that regulates heart development. By combining the two chemicals with GMT, the researchers successfully regenerated heart muscle and greatly improved heart function in mice that had suffered a heart attack.”

Senior author on the study, Deepak Srivastava, further explained:

“While our original process for direct cardiac reprogramming with GMT has been promising, it could be more efficient. With our screen, we discovered that chemically inhibiting two biological pathways active in embryonic formation improves the speed, quantity, and quality of the heart cells produced from our original process.”

Encouraged by their studies in mice, the scientists also tested their new and improved direct reprogramming method on human cells. Previously they found that while the same GMT transcription factors could reprogram human cardiac fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes, a combination of seven factors was required to make quality cardiomyocytes comparable to those seen in mice. But with the addition of the two inhibitors, they were able to reduce the number of reprogramming factors from seven to four, which included the GMT factors and one additional factor called Myocardin. These four factors plus the two chemical inhibitors were capable of reprograming human cardiac fibroblasts into beating heart cells.

With heart failure affecting more than 20 million people globally, the need for new therapies that can regenerate the heart is pressing. The Gladstone team is hoping to advance their research to a point where it could be tested in human patients with heart failure. First author on the study, Tamer Mohamed, concluded:

“Heart failure afflicts many people worldwide, and we still do not have an effective treatment for patients suffering from this disease. With our enhanced method of direct cardiac reprogramming, we hope to combine gene therapy with drugs to create better treatments for patients suffering from this devastating disease.”

Tamer Mohamed and Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

Tamer Mohamed and Deepak Srivastava. Photo courtesy of Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes


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Throwback Thursday: Progress to a Cure for Type 1 Diabetes

Welcome back to our “Throwback Thursday” series on the Stem Cellar. Over the years, we’ve accumulated an arsenal of valuable stem cell stories on our blog. Some of these stories represent crucial advances towards stem cell-based cures for serious diseases and deserve a second look.

novemberawarenessmonthThis week in honor of Diabetes Awareness Month, we are featuring type 1 diabetes (T1D), a chronic disease that destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in your pancreas. Without these important cells, patients cannot maintain the proper levels of glucose, a fancy name for sugar, in their blood and are at risk for many complications including heart disease, blindness, and even death.

Cell replacement therapy is evolving into an attractive option for patients with T1D. Replacing lost beta cells in the pancreas is a more permanent and less burdensome solution than the daily insulin shots (or insulin pumps) that many T1D patients currently take.

So let’s take a look at the past year’s advances in stem cell research for diabetes.

Making Insulin-Producing Cells from Stem Cells and Skin

This year, there were a lot of exciting studies that improved upon previous methods for generating pancreatic beta cells in a dish. Here’s a brief recap of a few of the studies we covered on our blog:

  • Make pancreatic cells from stem cells. Scientists from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute developed a method that makes beta cells from T1D patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that behave very similarly to true beta cells both in a dish and when transplanted into diabetic mice. Their discovery has the potential to offer personalized stem cell treatments for patients with T1D in the near future and the authors of the study predicted that their technology could be ready to test in humans in the next three to five years.
  • Making functional pancreatic cells from skin. Scientists from the Gladstone Institutes used a technique called direct reprogramming to turn human skin cells directly into pancreatic beta cells without having to go all the way back to a pluripotent stem cell state. The pancreatic cells looked and acted like the real thing in a dish (they were able to secrete insulin when exposed to glucose), and they functioned normally when transplanted into diabetic mice. This study is exciting because it offers a new and more efficient method to make functioning human beta cells in mass quantities.

    Functioning human pancreatic cells after they’ve been transplanted into a mouse. (Image: Saiyong Zhu, Gladstone)

    Functioning human pancreatic cells after they’ve been transplanted into a mouse. (Image: Saiyong Zhu, Gladstone)

  • Challenges of stem cell-derived diabetes treatments. At this year’s Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Award ceremony Douglas Melton, a well-renowned diabetes researcher from Harvard, spoke about the main challenges for developing stem cell-derived diabetes treatments. The first is the need for better control over the methods that make beta cells from stem cells. The second was finding ways to make large quantities of beta cells for human transplantation. The last was finding ways to prevent a patient’s immune system from rejecting transplanted beta cells. Melton and other scientists are already working on improving techniques to make more beta cells from stem cells. As for preventing transplanted beta cells from being attacked by the patient’s immune system, Melton described two possibilities: using an encapsulation device or biological protection to mask the transplanted cells from an attack.

Progress to a Cure: Clinical Trials for Type 1 Diabetes

Speaking of encapsulation devices, CIRM is funding a Phase I clinical trial sponsored by a San Diego-based company called ViaCyte that’s hoping to develop a stem cell-based cure for patients with T1D. The treatment involves placing a small encapsulated device containing stem cell-derived pancreatic precursor cells under the skin of T1D patients. Once implanted, these precursor cells should develop into pancreatic beta cells that can secrete insulin into the patient’s blood stream. The goal of this trial is first to make sure the treatment is safe for patients and second to see if it’s effective in improving a patient’s ability to regulate their blood sugar levels.

To learn more about this exciting clinical trial, watch this fun video made by Youreka Science.

ViaCyte is still waiting on results for their Phase 1 clinical trial, but in the meantime, they are developing a modified version of their original device for T1D called PEC-Direct. This device also contains pancreatic precursor cells but it’s been designed in a way that allows the patient’s blood vessels to make direct connections to the cells inside the device. This vascularization process hopefully will improve the survival and function of the insulin producing beta cells inside the device. This study, which is in the last stage of research before clinical trials, is also being funded by CIRM, and we are excited to hear news about its progress next year.

ViaCyte's PEC-Direct device allows a patient's blood vessels to integrate and make contact with the transplanted beta cells.

ViaCyte’s PEC-Direct device allows a patient’s blood vessels to integrate and make contact with the transplanted beta cells.


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How research on a rare disease turned into a faster way to make stem cells

Forest Gump. (Paramount Pictures)

Forest Gump. (Paramount Pictures)

If Forest Gump were a scientist, I’d like to think he would have said his iconic line a little differently. Dr. Gump would have said, “scientific research is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.”

A new CIRM-funded study coming out of the Gladstone Institutes certainly proves this point. Published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study found that a specific genetic mutation known to cause a rare disease called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) makes it easier to reprogram adult skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Shinya Yamanaka received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2012 for his seminal discovery of the iPSC technology, which enabled scientists to generate patient specific pluripotent stem cell lines from adult cells like skin and blood. These iPSC lines are useful for modeling disease in a dish, identifying new therapeutic drugs, and potentially for clinical applications in patients. However, one of the rate-limiting steps to this technology is the inefficient process of making iPSCs.

Yamanaka, a senior investigator at Gladstone, knows this problem all too well. In a Gladstone news release he commented, “inefficiency in creating iPSCs is a major roadblock toward applying this technology to biomedicine. Our study identified a surprising way to increase the number of iPSCs that we can generate.”

So how did Yamanaka and his colleagues discover this new trick for making iPSCs more efficiently? Originally, their intentions were to model a rare genetic disease called FOP. It’s commonly known as “stone man syndrome” because the disease converts normal muscle and connective tissue into bone either spontaneously or spurred by injury. Bone growth begins at a young age starting at the neck and progressively moving down the body. Because there is no treatment or cure, patients typically have a lifespan of only 40 years.

The Gladstone team wanted to understand this rare disease better by modeling it in a dish using iPSCs generated from patients with FOP. These patients had a genetic mutation in the ACVR1 gene, which plays an important role in the development of the embryo. FOP patients have a mutant form of ACVR1 that overstimulates this developmental pathway and boosts the activity of a protein called BMP (bone morphogenic protein). When BMP signaling is ramped up, they discovered that they could produce significantly more iPSCs from the skin cells of FOP patients compared to normal, healthy skin cells.

First author on the study, Yohei Hayashi, explained their hypothesis for why this mutation makes it easier to generate iPSCs:

“Originally, we wanted to establish a disease model for FOP that might help us understand how specific gene mutations affect bone formation. We were surprised to learn that cells from patients with FOP reprogrammed much more efficiently than cells from healthy patients. We think this may be because the same pathway that causes bone cells to proliferate also helps stem cells to regenerate.”

To be sure that enhanced BMP signaling caused by the ACVR1 mutation was the key to generating more iPSCs, they blocked this signal and discovered that much fewer iPSCs were made from FOP patient skin cells.

Senior Investigator Bruce Conklin, who was a co-author on this study, succinctly summarized the importance of their findings:

“This is the first reported case showing that a naturally occurring genetic mutation improves the efficiency of iPSC generation. Creating iPSCs from patient cells carrying genetic mutations is not only useful for disease modeling, but can also offer new insights into the reprogramming process.”

Gladstone investigators Bruce Conklin and Shinya Yamanaka. (Photo courtesy of Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes)

Gladstone investigators Bruce Conklin and Shinya Yamanaka. (Photo courtesy of Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes)

From Pig Parts to Stem Cells: Scientist Douglas Melton Wins Ogawa-Yamanaka Prize for Work on Diabetes

Since the 1920s, insulin injections have remained the best solution for managing type 1 diabetes. Patients with this disease do not make enough insulin – a hormone that regulates the sugar levels in your blood – because the insulin-producing cells, or beta cells, in their pancreas are destroyed.

Back then, it took two tons of pig parts to make eight ounces of insulin, which was enough to treat 10,000 diabetic patients for six months. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies have since developed different types of human insulin treatments that include fast and long acting versions of the hormone. It’s estimated that $22 billion will be spent on developing insulin products for patients this year and that costs will rise to $32 billion in the year 2019.

These costs are necessary to keep insulin-dependent diabetes patients alive and healthy, but what if there was a different, potentially simpler solution to manage diabetes? One that looks to insulin-producing beta cells as the solution rather than daily hormone shots?

Douglas Melton Receives Stem Cell Prize for Work on Diabetes

Harvard scientist Douglas Melton envisions a world where one day, insulin-dependent diabetic patients are given stem cell transplants rather than shots to manage their diabetes. In the 90s, Melton’s son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Motivated by his son’s diagnosis, Melton dedicated the focus of his research on understanding how beta cells develop from stem cells in the body and also in a cell culture dish.

Almost 30 years later, Melton has made huge strides towards understanding the biology of beta cell development and has generated methods to “reprogram” or coax pluripotent stem cells into human beta cells.

Melton was honored for his important contributions to stem cell and diabetes research at the second annual Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize ceremony last week at the Gladstone Institutes. This award recognizes outstanding scientists that are translating stem cell research from the lab to clinical trials in patients.

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Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, explained why Melton was selected as this year’s prize winner:

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

“Doug’s research on genetic markers expressed during pancreas development have led to a reliable way to reprogram stem cells into human beta cells. His work provides the foundation for the ultimate goal of transplantable, patient-specific beta cells.”

 

Making Beta Cells for Patients

During the awards ceremony, Melton discussed his latest work on generating beta cells from human stem cells and how this technology could transform the way insulin-dependent patients are treated.

Douglas Melton, Harvard University.

Douglas Melton, Harvard University.

“I don’t mean to say that this [insulin treatment] isn’t a good idea. That’s keeping these people alive and in good health,” said Melton during his lecture. “What I want to talk about is a different approach. Rather than making more and better insulins and providing them by different medical devices, why not go back to nature’s solution which is the beta cells that makes the insulin?”

Melton first described his initial research on making pancreatic beta cells from embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells in a culture dish. He described the power of this system for not only modeling diabetes, but also screening for potential drugs, and testing new therapies in animal models.

He also mentioned how he and his colleagues are developing methods to manufacture large amounts of human beta cells derived from pluripotent stem cells for use in patients. They are able to culture stem cells in large spinning flasks that accelerate the growth and development of pluripotent stem cells into billions of human beta cells.

Challenges and Future of Stem-Cell Derived Diabetes Treatments

Melton expressed a positive outlook for the future of stem cell-derived treatments for insulin-dependent diabetes, but he also mentioned two major challenges. The first is the need for better control over the methods that make beta cells from stem cells. These methods could be more efficient and generate higher numbers of beta cells (beta cells make up 16% of stem cell-derived cells using their current culturing methods). The second is preventing an autoimmune attack after transplanting the stem-cell derived beta cells into patients.

Melton and other scientists are already working on improving techniques to make more beta cells from stem cells. As for preventing transplanted beta cells from being attacked by the patient’s immune system, Melton described two possibilities: using an encapsulation device or biological protection to mask the transplanted cells from an attack.

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He mentioned a CIRM-funded clinical trial by ViaCyte, which is testing an encapsulation device that is placed under the skin. The device contains embryonic stem cell-derived pancreatic progenitor cells that develop into beta cells that secrete insulin into the blood stream. The device also prevents the immune system from attacking and killing the beta cells.

Melton also discussed a biological approach to protecting transplanted beta cells. In collaboration with Dan Anderson at MIT, they coated stem cell-derived beta cells in a biomaterial called alginate, which comes from seaweed. They injected alginate microcapsule-containing beta cells into diabetic mice and were able control their blood sugar levels.

At the end of his talk, Melton concluded that he believes that beta cell transplantation in an immunoprotective device containing stem cell-derived cells will have the most benefit for diabetes patients.

Gladstone Youtube video of Douglas Melton’s lecture at the Ogawa-Yamanaka Prize lecture.


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Stem Cell Experts Discuss the Ethical Implications of Translating iPSCs to the Clinic

Part of The Stem Cellar blog series on 10 years of iPSCs.

This year, scientists are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Shinya Yamanaka’s Nobel Prize winning discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are cells that are very similar biologically to embryonic stem cells and can develop into any cell in the body. iPSCs are very useful in scientific research for disease modeling, drug screening, and for potential cell therapy applications.

However, with any therapy that involves testing in human patients, there are ethical questions that scientists, companies, and policy makers must consider. Yesterday, a panel of stem cell and bioethics experts at the Cell Symposium 10 Years of iPSCs conference in Berkeley discussed the ethical issues surrounding the translation of iPSC research from the lab bench to clinical trials in patients.

The panel included Shinya Yamanaka (Gladstone Institutes), George Daley (Harvard University), Christine Mummery (Leiden University Medical Centre), Lorenz Studer (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), Deepak Srivastava (Gladstone Institutes), and Bioethicist Hank Greely (Stanford University).

iPSC Ethics Panel

iPSC Ethics Panel at the 10 Years of iPSCs Conference

Below is a summary of what these experts had to say about questions ranging from the ethics of patient and donor consent, genetic modification of iPSCs, designer organs, and whether patients should pay to participate in clinical trials.

How should we address patient or donor consent regarding iPSC banking?

Multiple institutes including CIRM are developing iPSC banks that store thousands of patient-derived iPSC lines, which scientists can use to study disease and develop new therapies. These important cell lines wouldn’t exist without patients who consent to donate their cells or tissue. The first question posed to the panel was how to regulate the consent process.

Christine Mummery began by emphasizing that it’s essential that companies are able to license patient-derived iPSC lines so they don’t have to go back to the patient and inconvenience them by asking for additional samples to make new cell lines.

George Daley and Hank Greely discussed different options for improving the informed consent process. Daley mentioned that the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) recently updated their informed consent guidelines and now provide adaptable informed consent templates that can be used for obtaining many type of materials for human stem cell research.  Daley also mentioned the move towards standardizing the informed consent process through a single video shared by multiple institutions.

Greely agreed that video could be a powerful way to connect with patients by using talented “explainers” to educate patients. But both Daley and Greely cautioned that it’s essential to make sure that patients understand what they are getting involved in when they donate their tissue.

Greely rounded up the conversation by reminding the audience that patients are giving the research field invaluable information so we should consider giving back in return. While we can’t and shouldn’t promise a cure, we can give back in other ways like recognizing the contributions of specific patients or disease communities.

Greely mentioned the resolution with Henrietta Lack’s family as a good example. For more than 60 years, scientists have used a cancer cell line called HeLa cells that were derived from the cervical cancer cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta never gave consent for her cells to be used and her family had no clue that pieces of Henrietta were being studied around the world until years later.

In 2013, the NIH finally rectified this issue by requiring that researchers ask for permission to access Henrietta’s genomic data and to include the Lacks family in their publication acknowledgements.

Hank Greely, Stanford University

Hank Greely, Stanford University

“The Lacks family are quite proud and pleased that their mother, grandmother and great grandmother is being remembered, that they are consulted on various things,” said Hank Greely. “They aren’t making any direct money out of it but they are taking a great deal of pride in the recognition that their family is getting. I think that returning something to patients is a nice thing, and a human thing.”

What are the ethical issues surrounding genome editing of iPSCs?

The conversation quickly focused on the ongoing CRISPR patent battle between the Broad Institute, MIT and UC Berkeley. For those unfamiliar with the technique, CRISPR is a gene editing technology that allows you to cut and paste DNA at precise locations in the genome. CRISPR has many uses in research, but in the context of iPSCs, scientists are using CRISPR to remove disease-causing mutations in patient iPSCs.

George Daley expressed his worry about a potential fallout if the CRISPR battle goes a certain way. He commented, “It’s deeply concerning when such a fundamentally enabling platform technology could be restricted for future gene editing applications.”

The CRISPR patent battle began in 2012 and millions of dollars in legal fees have been spent since then. Hank Greely said that he can’t understand why the Institutes haven’t settled this case already as the costs will only continue to rise, but that it might not matter how the case turns out in the end:

“My guess is that this isn’t ultimately going to be important because people will quickly figure out ways to invent around the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. People have already done it around the Cas9 part and there will probably be ways to do the same thing for the CRISPR part.”

 Christine Mummery finished off with a final point about the potential risk of trying to correct disease causing mutations in patient iPSCs using CRISPR technology. She noted that it’s possible the correction may not lead to an improvement because of other disease-causing genetic mutations in the cells that the patient and their family are unaware of.

 Should patients or donors be paid for their cells and tissue?

Lorenz Studer said he would support patients being paid for donating samples as long as the payment is reasonable, the consent form is clear, and patients aren’t trying to make money off of the process.

Hank Greely said the big issue is with inducement and whether you are paying enough money to convince people to do something they shouldn’t or wouldn’t want to do. He said this issue comes up mainly around reproductive egg donation but not with obtaining simpler tissue samples like skin biopsies. Egg donors are given money because it’s an invasive procedure, but also because a political decision was made to compensate egg donors. Greely predicts the same thing is unlikely to happen with other cell and tissue types.

Christine Mummery’s opinion was that if a patient’s iPSCs are used by a drug company to produce new successful drugs, the patient should receive some form of compensation. But she said it’s hard to know how much to pay patients, and this question was left unanswered by the panel.

Should patients pay to participate in clinical trials?

George Daley said it’s hard to justify charging patients to participate in a Phase 1 clinical trial where the focus is on testing the safety of a therapy without any guarantee that there will be beneficial outcome to the patient. In this case, charging a patient money could raise their expectations and mislead them into thinking they will benefit from the treatment. It would also be unfair because only patients who can afford to pay would have access to trials. Ultimately, he concluded that making patients pay for an early stage trial would corrupt the informed consent process. However, he did say that there are certain, rare contexts that would be highly regulated where patients could pay to participate in trials in an ethical way.

Lorenz Studer said the issue is very challenging. He knows of patients who want to pay to be in trials for treatments they hope will work, but he also doesn’t think that patients should have to pay to be in early stage trials where their participation helps the progress of the therapy. He said the focus should be on enrolling the right patient groups in clinical trials and making sure patients are properly educated about the trial they are participating.

Thoughts on the ethics behind making designer organs from iPSCs?

Deepak Srivastava said that he thinks about this question all the time in reference to the heart:

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

“The heart is basically a pump. When we traditionally thought about whether we could make a human heart, we asked if we could make the same thing with the same shape and design. But in fact, that’s not necessarily the best design – it’s what evolution gave us. What we really need is a pump that’s electrically active. I think going forward, we should remove the constraint of the current design and just think about what would be the best functional structure to do it. But it is definitely messing with nature and what evolution has given us.”

Deepak also said that because every organ is different, different strategies should be used. In the case of the heart, it might be beneficial to convert existing heart tissue into beating heart cells using drugs rather than transplant iPSC-derived heart cells or tissue. For other organs like the pancreas, it is beneficial to transplant stem cell-derived cells. For diabetes, scientists have shown that injecting insulin secreting cells in multiple areas of the body is beneficial to Diabetes patients.

Hank Greely concluded that the big ethical issue of creating stem cell-derived organs is safety. “Biology isn’t the same as design,” Greely said. “It’s really, really complicated. When you put something into a biological organism, the chances that something odd will happen are extremely high. We have to be very careful to avoid making matters worse.”

For more on the 10 years of iPSCs conference, check out the #CSStemCell16 hashtag on twitter.