Stem cell stories that caught our eye: lab-grown blood stem cells and puffer fish have the same teeth stem cells as humans

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

Scientists finally grow blood stem cells in the lab!

Two exciting stem cell studies broke through the politics-dominated headlines this week. Both studies, published in the journal Nature, demonstrated that human hematopoietic or blood stem cells can be grown in the lab.

This news is a big deal because scientists have yet to make bonafide blood stem cells from pluripotent stem cells or other human cells. These stem cells not only create all the cells in our blood and immune systems, but also can be used to develop therapies for patients with blood cancers and genetic blood disorders.

But to do these experiments, you need a substantial source of blood stem cells – something that has eluded scientists for decades. That’s where these two studies come to the rescue. One study was spearheaded by George Daley at the Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts and the other was led by Shahin Rafii at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Researchers have made blood stem cells and progenitor cells from pluripotent stem cells. Credit: Steve Gschmeissner Getty Images

George Daley and his team developed a strategy that matured human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) into blood-forming stem and progenitor cells. It’s a two-step process that first uses a cocktail of chemicals to make hemogenic endothelium, the embryonic tissue that generates blood stem cells. The second step involved treating these intermediate cells with a combination of seven transcription factors that directed them towards a blood stem cell fate.

These modified human blood stem cells were then transplanted into mice where they developed into blood stem cells that produced blood and immune cells. First author on the study, Ryohichi Sugimura, explained the applications that their technology could be used for in a Boston Children’s Hospital news release,

“This step opens up an opportunity to take cells from patients with genetic blood disorders, use gene editing to correct their genetic defect and make functional blood cells. This also gives us the potential to have a limitless supply of blood stem cells and blood by taking cells from universal donors. This could potentially augment the blood supply for patients who need transfusions.”

The second study by Shahin Rafii and his team at Cornell used a different strategy to generate blood-forming stem cells. Instead of genetically manipulating iPS cells, they selected a more mature cell type to directly reprogram into blood stem cells. Using four transcription factors, they successfully reprogrammed mouse endothelial cells, which line the insides of blood vessels, into blood-forming stem cells that repopulated the blood and immune systems of irradiated mice.

Raffii believe his method is simpler and more efficient than Daley’s. In coverage by Nature News, he commented,

“Using the most efficient method to generate stem cells matters because every time a gene is added to a batch of cells, a large portion of the batch fails to incorporate it and must be thrown out. There is also a risk that some cells will mutate after they are modified in the lab, and could form tumors if they are implanted into people.”

To play devil’s advocate, Daley’s technique might appeal more to some because the starting source of iPS cells is much easier to obtain and culture in the lab than endothelial cells that have to be extracted from the blood vessels of animals or people. Furthermore, Daley argued that his team’s method could “be made more efficient, and [is] less likely to spur tumor growth and other abnormalities in modified cells.”

The Nature News article compares the achievements of both studies and concluded,

“Time will determine which approach succeeds. But the latest advances have buoyed the spirits of researchers who have been frustrated by their inability to generate blood stem cells from iPS cells.”

 

Humans and puffer fish have the same tooth-making stem cells.

Here’s a fun fact for your next blind date: humans and puffer fish share the same genes that are responsible for making teeth. Scientists from the University of Sheffield in England discovered that the stem cells that make teeth in puffer fish are the same stem cells that make the pearly whites in humans. Their work was published in the journal PNAS earlier this week.

Puffer fish. Photo by pingpogz on Flickr.

But if you look at this puffer fish, you’ll see a dramatic difference between its smile and ours – their teeth look more like a beak. Research has shown that the tooth-forming stem cells in puffer fish produce tooth plates that form a beak-like structure, which helps them crush and consume their prey.

So why is this shared evolution between humans and puffer fish important when our teeth look and function so differently? The scientists behind this research believe that studying the pufferfish could unearth answers about tooth loss in humans. The lead author on the study, Dr. Gareth Fraser, concluded in coverage by Phys.org,

“Our study questioned how pufferfish make a beak and now we’ve discovered the stem cells responsible and the genes that govern this process of continuous regeneration. These are also involved in general vertebrate tooth regeneration, including in humans. The fact that all vertebrates regenerate their teeth in the same way with a set of conserved stem cells means that we can use these studies in more obscure fishes to provide clues to how we can address questions of tooth loss in humans.”

Positively good news from Asterias for CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial for spinal cord injury

AsteriasWhenever I give a talk on stem cells one of the questions I invariably get asked is “how do you know the cells are going where you want them to and doing what you want them to?”

The answer is pretty simple: you look. That’s what Asterias Biotherapeutics did in their clinical trial to treat people with spinal cord injuries. They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to see what was happening at the injury site; and what they saw was very encouraging.

Asterias is transplanting what they call AST-OPC1 cells into patients who have suffered recent injuries that have left them paralyzed from the neck down.  AST-OPC1 are oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, which develop into cells that support and protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury. It’s hoped the treatment will restore connections at the injury site, allowing patients to regain some movement and feeling.

Taking a closer look

Early results suggest the therapy is doing just that, and now follow-up studies, using MRIs, are adding weight to those findings.

The MRIs – taken six months after treatment – show that the five patients given a dose of 10 million AST-OPC1 cells had no evidence of lesion cavities in their spines. That’s important because often, after a spinal cord injury, the injury site expands and forms a cavity, caused by the death of nerve and support cells in the spine, that results in permanent loss of movement and function below the site, and additional neurological damage to the patient.

Another group of patients, treated in an earlier phase of the clinical trial, showed no signs of lesion cavities 12 months after their treatment.

Positively encouraging

In a news release, Dr. Edward Wirth, the Chief Medical Officer at Asterias, says this is very positive:

“These new follow-up results based on MRI scans are very encouraging, and strongly suggest that AST-OPC1 cells have engrafted in these patients post-implantation and have the potential to prevent lesion cavity formation, possibly reducing long-term spinal cord tissue deterioration after spinal cord injury.”

Because the safety data is also encouraging Asterias is now doubling the dose of cells that will be transplanted into patients to 20 million, in a separate arm of the trial. They are hopeful this dose will be even more effective in helping restore movement and function in patients.

We can’t wait to see what they find.

Kidney Disease: There’s an Organ-on-a-Chip for That

“There’s an app for that” is a well-known phrase trademarked by Apple to promote how users can do almost anything they do on a computer on their mobile phone. Apps are so deeply ingrained in everyday life that it’s hard for some people to imagine living without them. (I know I’d be lost without google maps or my Next Bus app!)

An estimated 2.2 million mobile apps exist for iPhones. Imagine if this multitude of apps were instead the number of stem cell models available for scientists to study human biology and disease. Scientists dream of the day when they can respond to questions about any disease and say, “there’s a model for that.” However, a future where every individual or disease has its own personalized stem cell line is still far away.

In the meantime, scientists are continuing to generate stem cell-based technologies that answer important questions about how our tissues and organs function and what happens when they are affected by disease. One strategy involves growing human stem cells on microchips and developing them into miniature organ systems that function like the organs in our bodies.

Kidney-on-a-chip

A group of scientists from Harvard’s Wyss Institute are using organ-on-a-chip technology to model a structure in the human kidney, called a glomerulus, that’s essential for filtering the body’s blood. It’s made up of a meshwork of blood vessels called capillaries that remove waste, toxic products, and excess fluid from the blood by depositing them into the urine.

The glomerulus also contains cells called podocytes that wrap around the capillaries and leave thin slits for blood to filter through. Diseases that affect podocytes or the glomerulus structure can cause kidney failure early or later in life, which is why the Harvard team was so interested to model this structure using their microchip technology.

They developed a method to mature human pluripotent stem cells into podocytes by engineering an environment similar to that of a real kidney on a microchip. Using a combination of kidney-specific factors and extracellular matrix molecules, which form a supportive environment for cells within tissues and organs, the team generated mature podocytes from human stem cells in three weeks. Their study was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering and was led by Dr. Donald Ingber, Founding Director of the Wyss Institute.

3D rendering of the glomerulus-on-a-chip derived from human stem cells. (Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

First author, Samaira Musah, explained how their glomerulus-on-a-chip works in a news release,

“Our method not only uses soluble factors that guide kidney development in the embryo, but, by growing and differentiating stem cells on extracellular matrix components that are also contained in the membrane separating the glomerular blood and urinary systems, we more closely mimic the natural environment in which podocytes are induced and mature. We even succeeded in inducing much of this differentiation process within a channel of the microfluidic chip, where by applying cyclical motions that mimic the rhythmic deformations living glomeruli experience due to pressure pulses generated by each heartbeat, we achieve even greater maturation efficiencies.”

Over 90% of stem cells successfully developed into functional podocytes that could properly filter blood by selectively filtering different blood proteins. The podocytes also were susceptible to a chemotherapy drug called doxorubicin, proving that they are suitable for modeling the effects of drug toxicity on kidneys.

Kidney podocyte derived from human stem cells. (Wyss Institute)

Ingber highlighted the potential applications of their glomerulus-on-a-chip technology,

Donald Ingber, Wyss Institute

“The development of a functional human kidney glomerulus chip opens up an entire new experimental path to investigate kidney biology, carry out highly personalized modeling of kidney diseases and drug toxicities, and the stem cell-derived kidney podocytes we developed could even offer a new injectable cell therapy approach for regenerative medicine in patients with life-threatening glomerulopathies in the future.”

There’s an organ-on-a-chip for that!

The Wyss Institute team has developed other organ-on-chips including lungs, intestine, skin and bone marrow. These miniature human systems are powerful tools that scientists hope will “revolutionize drug development, disease modeling and personalized medicine” by reducing the cost of research and the reliance on animal models according to the Wyss Institute technology website.

What started out as a microengineering experiment in Ingber’s lab a few years ago is now transforming into a technology “that is now poised to have a major impact on society” Ingber further explained. If organs-on-chips live up to these expectations, you might one day hear a scientist say, “Don’t worry, there’s an organ-on-a-chip for that!”


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A call to put the ‘public’ back in publication, and make stem cell research findings available to everyone

Opening the door

Opening the door to scientific knowledge

Thomas Gray probably wasn’t thinking about stem cell research when, in 1750 in his poem “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, he wrote: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”. But a new study says that’s precisely what seems to happen to the findings of many stem cell clinical trials. They take place, but no details of their findings are ever made public. They blush, if they blush at all, unseen.

The study, in the journal Stem Cell Reports, says that only around 45 percent of stem cell clinical trials ever have their results published in peer-reviewed journals. Which means the results of around 55 percent of stem cell clinical trials are never shared with either the public or the scientific community.

Now, this finding apparently is not confined to stem cell research. Previous studies have shown a similar lack of publication of the results of more conventional therapies. Nonetheless, it’s a little disappointing – to say the least – to find out that so much knowledge and potentially valuable data is being lost due to lack of publication.

Definitely not full disclosure

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada used the US National Institute of Health’s (NIH) clinicaltrials.gov website as their starting point. They identified 1,052 stem cell clinical trials on the site. Only 393 trials were completed and of these, just 179 (45.4 percent) published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

In an interview in The Scientist, Tania Bubela, the lead researcher, says they chose to focus on stem cell clinical trials because of extensive media interest and the high public expectations for the field:

“When you have a field that is accused of over promising in some areas, it is beholden of the researchers in that field to publish the results of their trials so that the public and policy makers can realistically estimate the potential benefits.”

Now, it could be argued that publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is a rather high bar, that many researchers may have submitted articles but were rejected. However, there are other avenues for researchers to publish their findings, such as posting results on the clinicaltrials.gov database. Only 37 teams (3.5 percent) did that.

Why do it?

In the same article in The Scientist, Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, raises the obvious question:

“The study shows a gap between studies that have taken place and actual publication of the data, so a substantial number of trials testing cell-based interventions are not entering the public domain. The underlying question is, what is the ethical and scientific basis to exposing human research subjects to risk if there is not going to be any meaningful contribution to knowledge at the end of the process?”

In short, why do it if you are not going to let anyone know what you did and what you found?

It’s a particularly relevant question when you consider that much of this research was supported with taxpayer dollars from the NIH and other institutions. So, if the public is paying for this research, doesn’t the public have a right to know what was learned?

Right to know

At CIRM we certainly think so. We expect and encourage all the researchers we fund to publish their findings. There are numerous ways and places to do that. For example, we expect each grantee to post a lay summary of their progress which we publish on our website. Stanford’s Dr. Joseph Wu’s progress reports for his work on heart disease shows you what those look like.

We also require researchers conducting clinical trials that we are funding to submit and post their trial results on the clinicaltrials.gov website.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), agrees and recently updated its Guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation calling on researchers to publish, as fully as possible, their clinical trial results.

That is true regardless of whether or not the clinical trial showed it was both safe and effective, or whether it showed it was unsafe and ineffective. We can learn as much from failure as we can from success. But to do that we need to know what the results are.

Publishing only positive findings skews the scientific literature, and public perception of this work. Ignoring the negative could mean that other scientists waste a lot of time and money trying to do something that has already demonstrated it won’t work.

Publication should be a requirement for all research, particularly publicly funded research. It’s time to put the word “public” back in publication.

 

 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: developing the nervous system, aging stem cells and identical twins not so identical

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

New theory for how the nervous system develops.

There’s a new theory on the block for how the nervous system is formed thanks to a study published yesterday by UCLA stem cell scientists in the journal Neuron.

The theory centers around axons, thin extensions projecting from nerve cells that transmit electrical signals to other cells in the body. In the developing nervous system, nerve cells extend axons into the brain and spinal cord and into our muscles (a process called innervation). Axons are guided to their final destinations by different chemicals that tell axons when to grow, when to not grow, and where to go.

Previously, scientists believed that one of these important chemical signals, a protein called netrin 1, exerted its influence over long distances in a gradient-like fashion from a structure in the developing nervous system called the floor plate. You can think of it like a like a cell phone tower where the signal is strongest the closer you are to the tower but you can still get some signal even when you’re miles away.

The UCLA team, led by senior author and UCLA professor Dr. Samantha Butler, questioned this theory because they knew that neural progenitor cells, which are the precursors to nerve cells, produce netrin1 in the developing spinal cord. They believed that the netrin1 secreted from these progenitor cells also played a role in guiding axon growth in a localized manner.

To test their hypothesis, they studied neural progenitor cells in the developing spines of mouse embryos. When they eliminated netrin1 from the neural progenitor cells, the axons went haywire and there was no rhyme or reason to their growth patterns.

Left: axons (green, pink, blue) form organized patterns in the normal developing mouse spinal cord. Right: removing netrin1 results in highly disorganized axon growth. (UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Neuron)

A UCLA press release explained what the scientists discovered next,

“They found that neural progenitors organize axon growth by producing a pathway of netrin1 that directs axons only in their local environment and not over long distances. This pathway of netrin1 acts as a sticky surface that encourages axon growth in the directions that form a normal, functioning nervous system.”

Like how ants leave chemical trails for other ants in their colony to follow, neural progenitor cells leave trails of netrin1 in the spinal cord to direct where axons go. The UCLA team believes they can leverage this newfound knowledge about netrin1 to make more effective treatments for patients with nerve damage or severed nerves.

In future studies, the team will tease apart the finer details of how netrin1 impacts axon growth and how it can be potentially translated into the clinic as a new therapeutic for patients. And from the sounds of it, they already have an idea in mind:

“One promising approach is to implant artificial nerve channels into a person with a nerve injury to give regenerating axons a conduit to grow through. Coating such nerve channels with netrin1 could further encourage axon regrowth.”

Age could be written in our stem cells.

The Harvard Gazette is running an interesting series on how Harvard scientists are tackling issues of aging with research. This week, their story focused on stem cells and how they’re partly to blame for aging in humans.

Stem cells are well known for their regenerative properties. Adult stem cells can rejuvenate tissues and organs as we age and in response to damage or injury. However, like most house hold appliances, adult stem cells lose their regenerative abilities or effectiveness over time.

Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, explained,

“We do think that stem cells are a key player in at least some of the manifestations of age. The hypothesis is that stem cell function deteriorates with age, driving events we know occur with aging, like our limited ability to fully repair or regenerate healthy tissue following injury.”

Harvard scientists have evidence suggesting that certain tissues, such as nerve cells in the brain, age sooner than others, and they trigger other tissues to start the aging process in a domino-like effect. Instead of treating each tissue individually, the scientists believe that targeting these early-onset tissues and the stem cells within them is a better anti-aging strategy.

David Sadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
(Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)

Dr. Scadden is particularly interested in studying adult stem cell populations in aging tissues and has found that “instead of armies of similarly plastic stem cells, it appears there is diversity within populations, with different stem cells having different capabilities.”

If you lose the stem cell that’s the best at regenerating, that tissue might age more rapidly.  Dr. Scadden compares it to a game of chess, “If we’re graced and happen to have a queen and couple of bishops, we’re doing OK. But if we are left with pawns, we may lose resilience as we age.”

The Harvard Gazette piece also touches on a changing mindset around the potential of stem cells. When stem cell research took off two decades ago, scientists believed stem cells would grow replacement organs. But those days are still far off. In the immediate future, the potential of stem cells seems to be in disease modeling and drug screening.

“Much of stem cell medicine is ultimately going to be ‘medicine,’” Scadden said. “Even here, we thought stem cells would provide mostly replacement parts.  I think that’s clearly changed very dramatically. Now we think of them as contributing to our ability to make disease models for drug discovery.”

I encourage you to read the full feature as I only mentioned a few of the highlights. It’s a nice overview of the current state of aging research and how stem cells play an important role in understanding the biology of aging and in developing treatments for diseases of aging.

Identical twins not so identical (Todd Dubnicoff)

Ever since Takahashi and Yamanaka showed that adult cells could be reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state, researchers have been wrestling with a key question: exactly how alike are these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to embryonic stem cells (ESCs)?

It’s an important question to settle because iPSCs have several advantages over ESCs. Unlike ESCs, iPSCs don’t require the destruction of an embryo so they’re mostly free from ethical concerns. And because they can be derived from a patient’s cells, if iPSC-derived cell therapies were given back to the same patient, they should be less likely to cause immune rejection. Despite these advantages, the fact that iPSCs are artificially generated by the forced activation of specific genes create lingering concerns that for treatments in humans, delivering iPSC-derived therapies may not be as safe as their ESC counterparts.

Careful comparisons of DNA between iPSCs and ESCs have shown that they are indeed differences in chemical tags found on specific spots on the cell’s DNA. These tags, called epigenetic (“epi”, meaning “in addition”) modifications can affect the activity of genes independent of the underlying genetic sequence. These variations in epigenetic tags also show up when you compare two different preparations, or cell lines, of iPSCs. So, it’s been difficult for researchers to tease out the source of these differences. Are these differences due to the small variations in DNA sequence that are naturally seen from one cell line to the other? Or is there some non-genetic reason for the differences in the iPSCs’ epigenetic modifications?

Marian and Vivian Brown, were San Francisco’s most famous identical twins. Photo: Christopher Michel

A recent CIRM-funded study by a Salk Institute team took a clever approach to tackle this question. They compared epigenetic modifications between iPSCs derived from three sets of identical twins. They still found several epigenetic variations between each set of twins. And since the twins have identical DNA sequences, the researchers could conclude that not all differences seen between iPSC cell lines are due to genetics. Athanasia Panopoulos, a co-first author on the Cell Stem Cell article, summed up the results in a press release:

“In the past, researchers had found lots of sites with variations in methylation status [specific term for the epigenetic tag], but it was hard to figure out which of those sites had variation due to genetics. Here, we could focus more specifically on the sites we know have nothing to do with genetics. The twins enabled us to ask questions we couldn’t ask before. You’re able to see what happens when you reprogram cells with identical genomes but divergent epigenomes, and figure out what is happening because of genetics, and what is happening due to other mechanisms.”

With these new insights in hand, the researchers will have a better handle on interpreting differences between individual iPSC cell lines as well as their differences with ESC cell lines. This knowledge will be important for understanding how these variations may affect the development of future iPSC-based cell therapies.

jCyte starts second phase of stem cell clinical trial targeting vision loss

retinitis pigmentosas_1

How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision

Studies show that Americans fear losing their vision more than any other sense, such as hearing or speech, and almost as much as they fear cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV/AIDS. That’s not too surprising. Our eyes are our connection to the world around us. Sever that connection, and the world is a very different place.

For people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), the leading cause of inherited blindness in the world, that connection is slowly destroyed over many years. The disease eats away at the cells in the eye that sense light, so the world of people with RP steadily becomes darker and darker, until the light goes out completely. It often strikes people in their teens, and many are blind by the time they are 40.

There are no treatments. No cures. At least not yet. But now there is a glimmer of hope as a new clinical trial using stem cells – and funded by CIRM – gets underway.

klassenWe have talked about this project before. It’s run by UC Irvine’s Dr. Henry Klassen and his team at jCyte. In the first phase of their clinical trial they tested their treatment on a small group of patients with RP, to try and ensure that their approach was safe. It was. But it was a lot more than that. For people like Rosie Barrero, the treatment seems to have helped restore some of their vision. You can hear Rosie talk about that in our recent video.

Now the same treatment that helped Rosie, is going to be tested in a much larger group of people, as jCyte starts recruiting 70 patients for this new study.

In a news release announcing the start of the Phase 2 trial, Henry Klassen said this was an exciting moment:

“We are encouraged by the therapy’s excellent safety track record in early trials and hope to build on those results. Right now, there are no effective treatments for retinitis pigmentosa. People must find ways to adapt to their vision loss. With CIRM’s support, we hope to change that.”

The treatment involves using retinal progenitor cells, the kind destroyed by the disease. These are injected into the back of the eye where they release factors which the researchers hope will help rescue some of the diseased cells and regenerate some replacement ones.

Paul Bresge, CEO of jCyte, says one of the lovely things about this approach, is its simplicity:

“Because no surgery is required, the therapy can be easily administered. The entire procedure takes minutes.”

Not everyone will get the retinal progenitor cells, at least not to begin with. One group of patients will get an injection of the cells into their worst-sighted eye. The other group will get a sham injection with no cells. This will allow researchers to compare the two groups and determine if any improvements in vision are due to the treatment or a placebo effect.

The good news is that after one year of follow-up, the group that got the sham injection will also be able to get an injection of the real cells, so that if the therapy is effective they too may be able to benefit from it.

Rosie BarreroWhen we talked to Rosie Barrero about the impact the treatment had on her, she said it was like watching the world slowly come into focus after years of not being able to see anything.

“My dream was to see my kids. I always saw them with my heart, but now I can see them with my eyes. Seeing their faces, it’s truly a miracle.”

We are hoping this Phase 2 clinical trial gives others a chance to experience similar miracles.


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Could the Answer to Treating Parkinson’s Disease Come From Within the Brain?

Sometimes a solution to a disease doesn’t come in the form of a drug or a stem cell therapy, but from within ourselves.

Yesterday, scientists from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden reported an alternative strategy for treating Parkinson’s disease that involves reprogramming specific cells in the brain into the nerve cells killed off by the disease. Their method, which involves delivering reprogramming genes into brain cells called astrocytes, was able to alleviate motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease in mice.

What is Parkinson’s Disease and how is it treated?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that’s characterized by the death of dopamine-producing nerve cells (called dopaminergic neurons) in an area of the brain that controls movement.

Dopaminergic neurons grown in a culture dish. (Image courtesy of Faria Zafar, Parkinson’s Institute).

PD patients experience tremors in their hands, arms and legs, have trouble starting and stopping movement, struggle with maintaining balance and have issues with muscle stiffness. These troublesome symptoms are caused by a lack dopamine, a chemical made by dopaminergic neurons, which signals to the part of the brain that controls how a person initiates and coordinates movement.

Over 10 million people in the world are affected by PD and current therapies only treat the symptoms of the disease rather than prevent its progression. Many of these treatments involve drugs that replace the lost dopamine in the brain, but these drugs lose their effectiveness over time as the disease kills off more neurons, and they come with their own set of side effects.

Another strategy for treating Parkinson’s is replacing the lost dopaminergic neurons through cell-based therapies. However this research is still in its early stages and would require patients to undergo immunosuppressive therapy because the stem cell transplants would likely be allogeneic (from a donor) rather than autologous (from the same individual).

Drug and cell-based therapies both involve taking something outside the body and putting it in, hoping that it does the right thing and prevents the disease. But what about using what’s already inside the human body to fight off PD?

This brings us to today’s study where scientists reprogrammed brain cells in vivo (meaning inside a living organism) to produce dopamine in mice with symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s. Their method, which was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, was successful in alleviating some of the Parkinson’s-related movement problems the mice had. This study was funded in part by a CIRM grant and received a healthy amount of coverage in the media including STATnews, San Diego Union-Tribune and Scientific American.

Reprogramming the brain to make more dopamine

Since Shinya Yamanaka published his seminal paper on reprogramming adult somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, scientists have taken the building blocks of his technology a step further to reprogram one adult cell type into another. This process is called “direct reprogramming” or “transdifferentiation”. It involves delivering a specific cocktail of genes into cells that rewrite the cells identity, effectively turning them into the cell type desired.

The Karolinska team found that three genes: NEUROD1, ASCL1 and LMX1A combined with a microRNA miR218 were able to reprogram human astrocytes into induced dopaminergic neurons (iDANs) in a lab dish. These neurons looked and acted like the real thing and gave the scientists hope that this combination of factors could reprogram astrocytes into iDANs in the brain.

The next step was to test these factors in mice with Parkinson’s disease. These mice were treated with a drug that killed off their dopaminergic neurons giving them Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The team used viruses to deliver the reprogramming cocktail to astrocytes in the brain. After a few weeks, the scientists observed that some of the “infected” astrocytes developed into iDANs and these newly reprogrammed neurons functioned properly, and more importantly, helped reverse some of the motor symptoms observed in these mice.

This study offers a new potential way to treat Parkinson’s by reprogramming cells in the brain into the neurons that are lost to the disease. While this research is still in its infancy, the scientists plan to improve the safety of their technology so that it can eventually be tested in humans.

Bonus Blog Interview for World Parkinson’s Day

Ernest Arenas, Karolinska Institutet

In honor of World Parkinson’s day (April 11th), I’m providing a bonus blog interview about this research. I reached out to the senior author of this study, Dr. Ernest Arenas, to ask him a few more questions about his publication and the future studies his team is planning.

Q) What are the major findings of your current study and how do they advance research on Parkinson’s disease?

The current treatment for Parkinson’s disease (PD) is symptomatic and does not change the course of the disease. Cell replacement therapies, such as direct in vivo reprogramming of in situ [local] astrocytes into dopamine (DA) neurons, work by substituting the cells lost by disease and have the potential to halt or even reverse motor alterations in PD.

Q) Can you comment on the potential for gene therapy treatments for Parkinson’s patients?

We see direct in vivo reprogramming of brain astrocytes into dopamine neurons in situ as a possible future alternative to DA cell transplantation. This method represents a gene therapy approach to cell replacement since we use a virus to deliver four reprogramming factors. In this method, the donor cells are in the host brain and there is no need to search for donor cells and no cell transplantation or immunosuppression. The method for the moment is an experimental prototype and much more needs to be done in order to improve efficiency, safety and to translate it to humans.

Q) Will reprogrammed iDANs be susceptible to Parkinson’s disease over time?

As any other cell replacement therapy, the cells would be, in principle, susceptible to Parkinson’s disease. It has been found that PD catches up with transplanted cells in 15-20 years. We think that this is a sufficiently long therapeutic window.

In addition, direct in vivo reprogramming may also be performed with drug-inducible constructs that could be activated years after, as disease progresses. This might allow adding more cells by turning on the reprogramming factors with pharmacological treatment to the host. This was not tested in our study but the basic technology to develop such strategies currently exist.

Q) What are your plans for future studies and translating this research towards the clinic?

In our experiments, we used transgenic mice in order to test our approach and to ensure that we only reprogrammed astrocytes. There is a lot that still needs to be done in order to develop this approach as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. This includes improving the efficiency and the safety of the method, as well as developing a strategy suitable for therapy in humans. This can be achieved by further improving the reprogramming cocktail, by using a virus with a selective tropism [affinity] for astrocytes and that do not incorporate the constructs into the DNA of the host cell, as well as using constructs with astrocyte-specific promoters and capable of self-regulating depending on the cell context.

Our study demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to use direct reprogramming of host brain cells in order to rescue neurological symptoms. These results indicate that direct reprogramming has the potential to become a novel therapeutic approach for Parkinson’s disease and opens new opportunities for the treatment of patients with neurological disorders.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Plasticity in the pancreas and two cool stem cell tools added to the research toolbox

There’s more plasticity in the pancreas than we thought. You’re taught a lot of things about the world when you’re young. As you get older, you realize that not everything you’re told holds true and it’s your own responsibility to determine fact from fiction. This evolution in understanding happens in science too. Scientists do research that leads them to believe that biological processes happen a certain way, only to sometimes find, a few years later, that things are different or not exactly what they had originally thought.

There’s a great example of this in a study published this week in Cell Metabolism about the pancreas. Scientists from UC Davis found that the pancreas, which secretes a hormone called insulin that helps regulate the levels of sugar in your blood, has more “plasticity” than was originally believed. In this case, plasticity refers to the ability of a tissue or organ to regenerate itself by replacing lost or damaged cells.

The long-standing belief in this field was that the insulin producing cells, called beta cells, are replenished when beta cells actively divide to create more copies of themselves. In patients with type 1 diabetes, these cells are specifically targeted and killed off by the immune system. As a result, the beta cell population is dramatically reduced, and patients have to go on life-long insulin treatment.

UC Davis researchers have identified another type of insulin-producing cell in the islets, which appears to be an immature beta cell shown in red. (UC Davis)

But it turns out there is another cell type in the pancreas that is capable of making beta cells and they look like a teenage, less mature version of beta cells. The UC Davis team identified these cells in mice and in samples of human pancreas tissue. These cells hangout at the edges of structures called islets, which are clusters of beta cells within the pancreas. Upon further inspection, the scientists found that these immature beta cells can secrete insulin but cannot detect blood glucose like mature beta cells. They also found their point of origin: the immature beta cells developed from another type of pancreatic cell called the alpha cell.

Diagram of immature beta cells from Cell Metabolism.

In coverage by EurekAlert, Dr Andrew Rakeman, the director of discovery research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, commented on the importance of this study’s findings and how it could be translated into a new approach for treating type 1 diabetes patients:

“The concept of harnessing the plasticity in the islet to regenerate beta cells has emerged as an intriguing possibility in recent years. The work from Dr. Huising and his team is showing us not only the degree of plasticity in islet cells, but the paths these cells take when changing identity. Adding to that the observations that the same processes appear to be occurring in human islets raises the possibility that these mechanistic insights may be able to be turned into therapeutic approaches for treating diabetes.”

 

Say hello to iPSCORE, new and improved tools for stem cell research. Stem cells are powerful tools to model human disease and their power got a significant boost this week from a new study published in Stem Cell Reports, led by scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The team developed a collection of over 200 induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) lines derived from people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. They call this stem cell tool kit “iPSCORE”, which stands for iPSC Collection for Omic Research (omics refers to a field of study in biology ending in -omics, such as genomics or proteomics). The goal of iPSCORE is to identify particular genetic variants (unique differences in DNA sequence between people’s genomes) that are associated with specific diseases and to understand why they cause disease at the molecular level.

In an interview with Phys.org, lead scientist on the study, Dr. Kelly Frazer, further explained the power of iPSCORE:

“The iPSCORE collection contains 75 lines from people of non-European ancestry, including East Asian, South Asian, African American, Mexican American, and Multiracial. It includes multigenerational families and monozygotic twins. This collection will enable us to study how genetic variation influences traits, both at a molecular and physiological level, in appropriate human cell types, such as heart muscle cells. It will help researchers investigate not only common but also rare, and even family-specific variations.”

This research is a great example of scientists identifying a limitation in stem cell research and expanding the stem cell tool kit to model diseases in a diverse human population.

A false color scanning electron micrograph of cultured human neuron from induced pluripotent stem cell. Credit: Mark Ellisman and Thomas Deerinck, UC San Diego.

Stem cells that can grow into ANY type of tissue. Embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the body, earning them the classification of pluripotent. But there is one type of tissue that embryonic stem cells can’t make and it’s called extra-embryonic tissue. This tissue forms the supportive tissue like the placenta that allows an embryo to develop into a healthy baby in the womb.

Stem cells that can develop into both extra-embryonic and embryonic tissue are called totipotent, and they are extremely hard to isolate and study in the lab because scientists lack the methods to maintain them in their totipotent state. Having the ability to study these special stem cells will allow scientists to answer questions about early embryonic development and fertility issues in women.

Reporting this week in the journal Cell, scientists from the Salk Institute in San Diego and Peking University in China identified a cocktail of chemicals that can stabilize human stem cells in a totipotent state where they can give rise to either tissue type. They called these more primitive stem cells extended pluripotent stem cells or EPS cells.

Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Bemonte, co–senior author of the paper, explained the problem their study addressed and the solution it revealed in a Salk news release:

“During embryonic development, both the fertilized egg and its initial cells are considered totipotent, as they can give rise to all embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages. However, the capture of stem cells with such developmental potential in vitro has been a major challenge in stem cell biology. This is the first study reporting the derivation of a stable stem cell type that shows totipotent-like bi-developmental potential towards both embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages.”

Human EPS cells (green) can be detected in both the embryonic part (left) and extra-embryonic parts (placenta and yolk sac, right) of a mouse embryo. (Salk Institute)

Using this new method, the scientists discovered that human EPS stem cells were able to develop chimeric embryos with mouse stem cells more easily than regular embryonic stem cells. First author on the study, Jun Wu, explained why this ability is important:

“The superior chimeric competency of both human and mouse EPS cells is advantageous in applications such as the generation of transgenic animal models and the production of replacement organs. We are now testing to see whether human EPS cells are more efficient in chimeric contribution to pigs, whose organ size and physiology are closer to humans.”

The Salk team reported on advancements in generating interspecies chimeras earlier this year. In one study, they were able to grow rat organs – including the pancreas, heart and eyes – in a mouse. In another study, they grew human tissue in early-stage pig and cattle embryos with the goal of eventually developing ways to generate transplantable organs for humans. You can read more about their research in this Salk news release.

One scientist’s quest to understand autism using stem cells

April is National Autism Awareness Month and people and organizations around the world are raising awareness about a disorder that affects more than 20 million people globally. Autism affects early brain development and causes a wide spectrum of social, mental, physical and emotional symptoms that appear during childhood. Because the symptoms and their severity can vary extremely between people, scientists now use the classification of autism spectrum disorder (ASM).

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, we’re featuring an interview with a CIRM-funded scientist who is on the forefront of autism and ASD research. Dr. Alysson Muotri is a professor at UC San Diego and his lab is interested in unlocking the secrets to brain development by using molecular tools and stem cell models.

One of his main research projects is on autism. Scientists in his lab are using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from individuals with ASD to model the disease in a dish. From these stem cell models, his team is identifying genes that are associated with ASD and potential drugs that could be used to treat this disorder. Ultimately, Dr. Muotri’s goal is to pave a path for the development of personalized therapies for people with ASD.

I reached out to Dr. Muotri to ask for an update on his Autism research. His responses are below.

Q: Can you briefly summarize your lab’s work on Autism Spectrum Disorders?

AM: As a neuroscientist studying autism, I was frustrated with the lack of a good experimental model to understand autism. All the previous models (animal, postmortem brain tissues, etc.) have serious experimental limitations. The inaccessibility of the human brain has blocked the progress of research on ASD for a long time. Cellular reprogramming allows us to transform easy-access cell types (such as skin, blood, dental pulp, etc.) into brain cells or even “mini-brains” in the lab. Because we can capture the entire genome of the person, we can recapitulate early stages of neurodevelopment of that same individual. This is crucial to study neurodevelopment disorders, such as ASD, because of the strong genetic factor underlying the pathology [the cause of a disease]. By comparing “mini-brains” between an ASD and neurotypical [non-ASD] groups, we can find anatomical and functional differences that might explain the clinical symptoms.

Q: What types of tools and models are you using to study ASD?

AM: Most of my lab takes advantage of reprogramming stem cells and genome editing techniques to generate 3D organoid models of ASD. We use the stem cells to create brain organoids, also called “mini-brains” in the lab. These mini-brains will develop from single cells and grow and mature in the same way as the fetal brain. Thus, we can learn about their structure and connectivity over time.

A cross section of a cerebral organoid or mini-brain courtesy of Alysson Muotri.

This new model brings something novel to the table: the ability to experimentally test specific hypotheses in a human background.  For example, we can ask if a specific genetic variant is causal for an autistic individual. Thus, we can edit the genome of that autistic individual, fixing target mutations in these mini-brains and check if now the fixed mini-brains will develop any abnormalities seen in ASD.

The ability to combine all these recent technologies to create a human experimental model of ASD in the lab is quite new and very exciting. As with any other model, there are limitations. For example, the mini-brains don’t have all the complexity and cell types seen in the developing human embryo/fetus. We also don’t know exactly if we are giving them the right and necessary environment (nutrients, growth factors, etc.) to mature. Nonetheless, the progress in this field is taking off quickly and it is all very promising.

Two mini-brains grown in a culture dish send out cellular extensions to connect with each other. Neurons are in green and astrocytes are in pink. Image courtesy of Dr. Muotri.

Q: We’ve previously written about your lab’s work on the Tooth Fairy Project and how you identified the TRPC6 gene. Can you share updates on this project and any new insights?

AM: The Tooth Fairy Project was designed to collect dental pulp cells from ASD and control individuals in a non-invasive fashion (no need for skin biopsy or to draw blood). We used social media to connect with families and engage them in our research. It was so successful we have now hundreds of cells in the lab. We use this material to reprogram into stem cells and to sequence their DNA.

One of the first ASD participants had a mutation in one copy of the TRPC6 gene, a novel ASD gene candidate. Everybody has two copies of this gene in the genome, but because of the mutation, this autistic kid has only one functional copy. Using stem cells, we re-created cortical neurons from that individual and confirmed that this mutation inhibits the formation of excitatory synapses (connections required to propagate information).

Interestingly, while studying TRPC6, we realized that a molecule found in Saint John’s Wort, hyperforin, could stimulate the functional TRPC6. Since the individual still has one functional TRPC6 gene copy, it seemed reasonable to test if hyperforin treatment could compensate the mutation on the other copy. It did. A treatment with hyperforin for only two weeks could revert the deficits on the neurons derived from that autistic boy. More exciting is the fact that the family agreed to incorporate St. John’s Wort on his diet. We have anecdotal evidence that this actually improved his social and emotional skills.

To me, this is the first example of personalized treatment for ASD, starting with genome sequencing, detecting potential causative genetic mutations, performing cellular modeling in the lab, and moving into clinic. I believe that there are many other autistic cases where this approach could be used to find better treatments, even with off the counter medications. To me, that is the greatest insight.

Watch Dr. Muotri’s Spotlight presentation about the Tooth Fairy Project and his work on autism.

Q: Is any of the research you are currently doing in autism moving towards clinical trials?

AM: IGF-1, or insulin growth factor-1, a drug we found promising for Rett syndrome and a subgroup of idiopathic [meaning its causes are spontaneous or unknown] ASD is now in clinical trials. Moreover, we just concluded a CIRM award on a large drug screening for ASD. The data is very promising, with several candidates. We have 14 drugs in the pipeline, some are repurposed drugs (initially designed for cancer, but might work for ASD). It will require additional pre-clinical studies before we start clinical trials.

Q: What do you think the future of diagnosis and treatment will be for patients with ASD?

AM: I am a big enthusiastic fan of personalized treatments for ASD. While we continue to search for a treatment that could help a large fraction of ASD people, we also recognized that some cases might be easier than others depending on their genetic profile. The idea of using stem cells to create “brain avatars” of ASD individuals in the lab is very exciting. We are also studying the possibility of using this approach as a future diagnostic tool for ASD. I can imagine every baby having their “brain avatar” analyses done in the lab, eventually pointing out “red flags” on the ones that failed to achieve neurodevelopment milestones. If we could capture these cases, way before the autism symptoms onset, we could initiate early treatments and therapies, increasing the chances for a better prognostic and clinical trajectory. None of these would be possible without stem cell research.

Q: What other types of research is your lab doing?

Mini-brains grown in a dish in Dr. Muotri’s lab.

AM: My lab is also using these human mini-brains to test the impact of environmental factors in neurodevelopment. By exposing the mini-brains to certain agents, such as pollution particles, household chemicals, cosmetics or agrotoxic products [pesticides], we can measure the concentration that is likely to induce brain abnormalities (defects in neuronal migration, synaptogenesis, etc.). This toxicological test can complement or substitute for other commonly used analyses, such as animal models, that are not very humane or predictive of human biology. A nice example from my lab was when we used this approach to confirm the detrimental effect of the Zika virus on brain development. Not only did we show causation between the circulating Brazilian Zika virus and microcephaly [a birth defect that causes an abnormally small head], but our data also pointed towards a potential mechanism (we showed that the virus kills neural progenitor cells, reducing the thickness of the cortical layers in the brain).

You can learn more about Dr. Muotri’s research on his lab’s website.


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Telomere length matters: scientists find shorter telomeres may cause aging-related disease

Aging is inevitable no matter how much you exercise, sleep or eat healthy. There is no magic pill or supplement that can thwart growing older. However, preventing certain age-related diseases is a different story. Genetic mutations can raise the risk of acquiring age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. And scientists are on the hunt for treatments that target these mutations in hopes of preventing these diseases from happening.

Telomeres shown in white act as protective caps at the ends of chromosomes.

Another genetic component that can accelerate diseases of aging are telomeres. These are caps made up of repeat sequences of DNA that sit at the ends of chromosomes and prevent the loss of important genetic material housed within chromosomes. Healthy cells have long telomeres, and ascells divide these telomeres begin to shorten. If telomere shortening is left unchecked, cells become unhealthy and either stop growing or self-destruct.

Cells have machinery to regrow their telomeres, but in most cases, the machinery isn’t activated and over time, the resulting shortened telomeres can lead to problems like an impaired immune system and organ degeneration. Shortened telomeres are associated with age-related diseases, but the reasons why have remained elusive until recently.

Scientists from the Gladstone Institutes have found a clue to this telomere puzzle that they shared in a study published yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. This research was funded in part by a CIRM Discovery stage award.

In their study, the team found that mice with a mutation that causes a heart condition known as calcific aortic valve disease (CAVD) were more likely to get the disease if they had short telomeres. CAVD causes the heart valves and vessels to turn hard as rock due to a buildup of calcium. It’s the third leading cause of heart disease and the only effective treatment requires surgery to replace the calcified parts of the heart.

Old age and mutations in one of the copies of the NOTCH1 gene can cause CAVD in humans. However, attempts to model CAVD in mice using the same NOTCH1 mutation have failed to produce symptoms of the disease. The team at Gladstone knew that mice inherently have longer telomeres than humans and hypothesized that these longer telomeres could protect mice with the NOTCH1 mutation from getting CAVD.

They decided to study NOTCH1 mutant mice that had short telomeres and found that these mice had symptoms of CAVD including hardened arteries. Furthermore, mice that had the shortest telomeres had the most severe heart-related symptoms.

First author on the study Christina Theodoris, explained in a Gladstone news release how telomere length matters in animal models of age-related diseases:

“Our findings reveal a critical role for telomere length in a mouse model of age-dependent human disease. This model provides a unique opportunity to dissect the mechanisms by which telomeres affect age-dependent disease and also a system to test novel therapeutics for aortic valve disease.”

Deepak Srivastava and Christina Theodoris created mouse models of CAVD that may be used to test drug therapies for the disease. (Photo: Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes)

The team believes that there is a direct relationship between short telomeres and CAVD, likely through alterations in the activity of gene networks related to CAVD. They also propose that telomere length could influence how severe the symptoms of this disease manifest in humans.

This study is important to the field because it offers a new strategy to study age-related diseases in animal models. Senior author on the study, Dr. Deepak Srivastava, elaborated on this concept:

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

“Historically, we have had trouble modeling human diseases caused by mutation of just one copy of a gene in mice, which impedes research on complex conditions and limits our discovery of therapeutics. Progressive shortening of longer telomeres that are protective in mice not only reproduced the clinical disease caused by NOTCH1 mutation, it also recapitulated the spectrum of disease severity we see in humans.”

Going forward, the Gladstone team will use their new mouse model of CAVD to test drug candidates that have the potential to treat CAVD in humans. If you want to learn more about this study, watch this Gladstone video featuring an interview of Dr. Srivastava about this publication.