Friday Stem Cell Round: Ask the Expert Facebook Live, Old Brain Cells Reveal Insights and Synthetic Development

Stem Cell Photo of the Week: We’re Live on Facebook Live!

Our stem cell photo of the week is a screenshot from yesterday’s Facebook Live event: “Ask the Expert: Stem Cells and Stroke”. It was our first foray into Facebook Live and, dare I say, it was a success with over 150 comments and 4,500 views during the live broadcast.

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Screen shot of yesterday’s Facebook Live event. Panelists included (from top left going clockwise): Sonia Coontz, Kevin McCormack, Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD and Lila Collins, PhD.

Our panel included Dr. Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, the Chair of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, who talked about promising clinical trial results testing a stem cell-based treatment for stroke. Lila Collins, PhD, a Senior Science Officer here at CIRM, provided a big picture overview of the latest progress in stem cell therapies for stroke. Sonia Coontz, a patient of Dr. Steinberg’s, also joined the live broadcast. She suffered a devastating stroke several years ago and made a remarkable recovery after getting a stem cell therapy. She had an amazing story to tell. And Kevin McCormack, CIRM’s Senior Director of Public Communications, moderated the discussion.

Did you miss the Facebook Live event? Not to worry. You can watch it on-demand on our Facebook Page.

What other disease areas would you like us to discuss? We plan to have these Ask the Expert shows on a regular basis so let us know by commenting here or emailing us at info@cirm.ca.gov!

Brain cells’ energy “factories” may be to blame for age-related disease

Salk Institute researchers published results this week that shed new light on why the brains of older individuals may be more prone to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. To make this discovery, the team applied a technique they devised back in 2015 which directly converts skin cells into brain cells, aka neurons. The method skips the typical intermediate step of reprogramming the skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

They collected skin samples from people ranging in age from 0 to 89 and generated neurons from each. With these cells in hand, the researchers then examined how increased age affects the neurons’ mitochondria, the structures responsible for producing a cell’s energy needs. Previous studies have shown a connection between faulty mitochondria and age-related disease.

While the age of the skin cells had no bearing on the health of the mitochondria, it was a different story once they were converted into neurons. The mitochondria in neurons derived from older individuals clearly showed signs of deterioration and produced less energy.

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Aged mitochondria (green) in old neurons (gray) appear mostly as small punctate dots rather than a large interconnected network. Credit: Salk Institute.

The researchers think this stark difference in the impact of age on skin cells vs. neurons may occur because neurons have higher energy needs. So, the effects of old age on mitochondria only become apparent in the neurons. In a press release, Salk scientist Jerome Mertens explained the result using a great analogy:

“If you have an old car with a bad engine that sits in your garage every day, it doesn’t matter. But if you’re commuting with that car, the engine becomes a big problem.”

The team is now eager to use this method to examine mitochondrial function in neurons derived from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patient skin samples and compared them with skin-derived neurons from similarly-aged, healthy individuals.

The study, funded in part by CIRM, was published in Cell Reports.

“Synthetically” Programming embryo development

One of the most intriguing, most fundamental questions in biology is how an embryo, basically a non-descript ball of cells, turns into a complex animal with eyes, a brain, a heart, etc. A deep understanding of this process will help researchers who aim to rebuild damaged or diseased organs for patients in need.

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Researchers programmed cells to self-assemble into complex structures such as this one with three differently colored layers. Credit: Wendell Lim/UCSF

A fascinating report published this week describes a system that allows researchers to program cells to self-organize into three-dimensional structures that mimic those seen during early development. The study applied a customizable, synthetic signaling molecule called synNotch developed in the Wendell Lim’s UCSF lab by co-author Kole Roybal, PhD, now an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at UCSF, and Leonardo Morsut, PhD, now an assistant professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Southern California.

A UCSF press release by Nick Weiler describes how synNotch was used:

“The researchers engineered cells to respond to specific signals from neighboring cells by producing Velcro-like adhesion molecules called cadherins as well as fluorescent marker proteins. Remarkably, just a few simple forms of collective cell communication were sufficient to cause ensembles of cells to change color and self-organize into multi-layered structures akin to simple organisms or developing tissues.”

Senior author Wendell Lim also explained how this system could overcome the challenges facing those aiming to build organs via 3D bioprinting technologies:

“People talk about 3D-printing organs, but that is really quite different from how biology builds tissues. Imagine if you had to build a human by meticulously placing every cell just where it needs to be and gluing it in place. It’s equally hard to imagine how you would print a complete organ, then make sure it was hooked up properly to the bloodstream and the rest of the body. The beauty of self-organizing systems is that they are autonomous and compactly encoded. You put in one or a few cells, and they grow and organize, taking care of the microscopic details themselves.”

Study was published in Science.

Coming up with a stem cell FIX for a life-threatening blood disorder

Hemophilia

A promising new treatment option for hemophiliacs is in the works at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences. Patients with Hemophilia B experience uncontrolled, and sometimes life threatening, bleeding due to loss or improper function of Factor IX (FIX), a protein involved in blood clotting. There is no cure for the disease and patients rely on routine infusions of FIX to prevent excessive blood loss. As you can imagine, this treatment regimen is both time consuming and expensive, while also becoming less effective over time.

Salk researchers, partially funded by CIRM, aimed to develop a more long-term solution for this devastating disease by using the body’s own cells to fix the problem.

In the study, published in the journal Cell Reports, They harvested blood cells from hemophiliacs and turned them into iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells), which are able to turn into any cell type. Using gene editing, they repaired the iPSCs so they could produce FIX and then turned the iPSCs into liver cells, the cell type that naturally produces FIX in healthy individuals.

One step therapy

To test whether these FIX-producing liver cells were able to reduce excess blood loss, the scientists injected the repaired human cells into a hemophiliac mouse. The results were very encouraging; they saw a greater than two-fold increase in clotting efficiency in the mice, reaching about a quarter of normal activity. This is particularly promising because other studies showed that increasing FIX activity to this level in hemophiliac humans significantly reduces bleeding rates. On top of that they also observed that these cells were able to survive and produce FIX for up to a year in the mice.

In a news release Suvasini Ramaswamy, the first author of the paper, said this method could eliminate the need for multiple treatments, as well as avoiding the immunosuppressive therapy that would be required for a whole liver transplant.

“The appeal of a cell-based approach is that you minimize the number of treatments that a patient needs. Rather than constant injections, you can do this in one shot.”

While these results provide an exciting new avenue in hemophilia treatment, there is still much more work that needs to be done before this type of treatment can be used in humans. This approach, however, is particularly exciting because it provides an important proof of principle that combining stem cell reprogramming with genetic engineering can lead to life-changing breakthroughs for treating genetic diseases that are not currently curable.

 

 

Building a better brain organoid

One of the reasons why it’s so hard to develop treatments for problems in the brain – things like Alzheimer’s, autism and schizophrenia – is that you can’t do an autopsy of a living brain to see what’s going wrong. People tend to object. To get around that, scientists have used stem cells to create models of what’s happening inside the brain. They’re good, but they have their limitations. Now a team at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has found a way to create a better brain model, and hopefully a faster route to developing new treatments.

For a few years now, scientists have been able to take skin cells from patients with neurodegenerative disorders and turn them into neurons, the kind of brain cell affected by these different diseases. They grow these cells in the lab and turn them into clusters of cells, so-called brain “organoids”, to help us better understand what’s happening inside the brain and even allow us to test medications on them to see if those treatments can help ease some symptoms.

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Human organoid tissue (green) grafted into mouse tissue. Neurons are labeled with red. Credit: Salk Institute

But those models don’t really capture the complexity of our brains – how could they – and so only offer a glimpse into what’s happening inside our skulls.

Now the team at Salk have developed a way of transplanting these organoids into mouse brains, giving them access to oxygen and nutrients that can help them not only survive longer but also display more of the characteristics found in the human brain.

In a news release, CIRM Grantee and professor at Salk’s Laboratory of Genetics, Rusty Gage said this new approach gives researchers a powerful new tool:

“This work brings us one step closer to a more faithful, functional representation of the human brain and could help us design better therapies for neurological and psychiatric diseases.”

The transplanted human brain organoids showed plenty of signs that they were becoming engrafted in the mouse brain:

  • They had blood vessels form in them and blood flowing through them
  • They formed neurons
  • They formed other brain support cells called astrocytes

They also used a series of imaging techniques to confirm that the neurons in the organoid were not just connecting but also sending signals, in essence, communicating with each other.

Abed AlFattah Mansour, a Salk research associate and the paper’s first author, says this is a big accomplishment.

“We saw infiltration of blood vessels into the organoid and supplying it with blood, which was exciting because it’s perhaps the ticket for organoids’ long-term survival. This indicates that the increased blood supply not only helped the organoid to stay healthy longer, but also enabled it to achieve a level of neurological complexity that will help us better understand brain disease.”

A better understanding of what’s going wrong is a key step in being able to develop new treatments to fix the problem.

The study is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

CIRM has a double reason to celebrate this work. Not only is the team leader, Rusty Gage, a CIRM grantee but one of the Salk team, Sarah Fernandes, is a former intern in the CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research program.

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From left: Sarah Fernandes, Daphne Quang, Stephen Johnston, Sarah Parylak, Rusty Gage, Abed AlFattah Mansour, Hao Li Credit: Salk Institute

Stem Cell Round: Improving memory, building up “good” fat, nanomedicine

Stem Cell Photo of the Week

roundup03618In honor of brain awareness week, our featured stem cell photo is of the brain! Scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Stem Cell Institute identified a genetic switch that could potentially improve memory during aging and symptoms of PTSD. Shown in this picture are dentate gyrus cells (DGC) (green) and CA3 interneurons (red) located in the memory-forming area of the brain known as the hippocampus. By reducing the levels of a protein called abLIM3 in the DGCs of older mice, the researchers were able to boost the connections between DGCs and CA3 cells, which resulted in an improvement in the memories of the mice. The team believes that targeting this protein in aging adults could be a potential strategy for improving memory and treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can read more about this study in The Harvard Gazette.

New target for obesity.
Fat cells typically get a bad rap, but there’s actually a type of fat cell that is considered “healthier” than others. Unlike white fat cells that store calories in the form of energy, brown fat cells are packed with mitochondria that burn energy and produce heat. Babies have brown fat, so they can regulate their body temperature to stay warm. Adults also have some brown fat, but as we get older, our stores are slowly depleted.

In the fight against obesity, scientists are looking for ways to increase the amount of brown fat and decrease the amount of white fat in the body. This week, CIRM-funded researchers from the Salk Institute identified a molecule called ERRg that gives brown fat its ability to burn energy. Their findings, published in Cell Reports, offer a new target for obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and fatty liver disease.

The team discovered that brown fat cells produce the ERRg molecule while white fat cells do not. Additionally, mice that couldn’t make the ERRg weren’t able to regulate their body temperature in cold environments. The team concluded in a news release that ERRg is “involved in protection against the cold and underpins brown fat identity.” In future studies, the researchers plan to activate ERRg in white fat cells to see if this will shift their identity to be more similar to brown fat cells.

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Mice that lack ERR aren’t able to regulate their body temperature and are much colder (right) than normal mice (left). (Image credit Salk Institute)

Tale of two nanomedicine stories: making gene therapies more efficient with a bit of caution (Todd Dubnicoff).
This week, the worlds of gene therapy, stem cells and nanomedicine converged for not one, but two published reports in the journal American Chemistry Society NANO.

The first paper described the development of so-called nanospears – tiny splinter-like magnetized structures with a diameter 5000 times smaller than a strand of human hair – that could make gene therapy more efficient and less costly. Gene therapy is an exciting treatment strategy because it tackles genetic diseases at their source by repairing or replacing faulty DNA sequences in cells. In fact, several CIRM-funded clinical trials apply this method in stem cells to treat immune disorders, like severe combined immunodeficiency and sickle cell anemia.

This technique requires getting DNA into diseased cells to make the genetic fix. Current methods have low efficiency and can be very damaging to the cells. The UCLA research team behind the study tested the nanospear-delivery of DNA encoding a gene that causes cells to glow green. They showed that 80 percent of treated cells did indeed glow green, a much higher efficiency than standard methods. And probably due to their miniscule size, the nanospears were gentle with 90 percent of the green glowing cells surviving the procedure.

As Steve Jonas, one of the team leads on the project mentions in a press release, this new method could bode well for future recipients of gene therapies:

“The biggest barrier right now to getting either a gene therapy or an immunotherapy to patients is the processing time. New methods to generate these therapies more quickly, effectively and safely are going to accelerate innovation in this research area and bring these therapies to patients sooner, and that’s the goal we all have.”

While the study above describes an innovative nanomedicine technology, the next paper inserts a note of caution about how experiments in this field should be set up and analyzed. A collaborative team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Stanford University, UC Berkeley and McGill University wanted to get to the bottom of why the many advances in nanomedicine had not ultimately led to many new clinical trials. They set out looking for elements within experiments that could affect the uptake of nanoparticles into cells, something that would muck up the interpretation of results.

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imaging of female human amniotic stem cells incubated with nanoparticles demonstrated a significant increase in uptake compared to male cells. (Green dots: nanoparticles; red: cell staining; blue: nuclei) Credit: Morteza Mahmoudi, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

In this study, they report that the sex of cells has a surprising, noticeable impact on nanoparticle uptake. Nanoparticles were incubated with human amniotic stem cells derived from either males or females. The team showed that the female cells took up the nanoparticles much more readily than the male cells.  Morteza Mahmoudi, PhD, one of the authors on the paper, explained the implications of these results in a press release:

“These differences could have a critical impact on the administration of nanoparticles. If nanoparticles are carrying a drug to deliver [including gene therapies], different uptake could mean different therapeutic efficacy and other important differences, such as safety, in clinical data.”

 

Making beating heart cells from stem cells just got easier

Here’s a heartwarming story for the holidays. Scientists from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California have figured out a simple, easy way to make beating heart cells from human stem cells that will aid research and therapy development for heart disease. Their study, which received funding support from CIRM, was published last week in the journal Genes & Development.

The Salk team discovered that making beating heart tissue from human stem cells is as simple as turning off a single gene called YAP. You might be wondering how the team settled on this gene and no, it doesn’t involve pulling a random gene name out of a hat.

In previous studies, the researchers found that two cell signaling pathways, Wnt and Activin, are crucial for the development of embryonic stem cells into specialized cells like cardiomyocytes (beating heart cells). This research led to the discovery of a third pathway, controlled by YAP, which sets up a road block for cell specialization and keeps stem cells in their undifferentiated state.

Only hESCs without YAP (right panel) make heart cells (green) in one step. Blue dye marks cell nuclei. (Salk Institute)

The team deleted YAP from these stem cells using CRISPR gene editing technology, and then treated the stem cells to the Activin signaling molecule. Without YAP, exposure to Activin prompted the stem cells to develop immediately into beating cardiomyocytes that you can see beating away in the Salk video below.

Dr. Kathy Jones, Salk professor and senior author on the study, explained why this discovery is important to the field in a news release:

“This discovery is really exciting because it means we can potentially create a reliable protocol for taking normal cells and moving them very efficiently from stem cells to heart cells. Researchers and commercial companies want to easily generate cardiomyocytes to study their capacity for repair in heart attacks and disease—this brings us one step closer to being able to do that.”

First author, Conchi Estarás, emphasized how their new method for making cardiomyocytes is attractive not only for its simplicity, but also for its cost-effectiveness in enabling large-scale manufacturing of these cells for treatment.

“Instead of requiring two steps to achieve specialization, removing YAP cut it to just one step. That would mean a huge savings for industry in terms of reagent materials and expense.”

Looking ahead, Jones and her team do not plan on deleting the YAP gene from stem cells because of the potential side effects cause by the loss of YAP’s other cellular functions. Instead, they will be using commercially available molecules that can temporarily inhibit the function of YAP in hopes that this less permanent action will still readily produce beating heart cells from stem cells.

Kathy Jones and Conchi Estarás. (Image courtesy of Salk Institute)

Stem Cell Tools: Helping Scientists Understand Complex Diseases

Yesterday, we discussed a useful stem cell tool called the CIRM iPSC Repository, which will contain over 3000 human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines – from patients and healthy individuals – that contain a wealth of information about human diseases. Now that scientists have access to these lines, they need the proper tools to study them. This is where CIRM’s Genomics Initiative comes into play.

Crunching stem cell data

In 2014, CIRM funded the Genomics Initiative, which created the Center of Excellence in Stem Cell Genomics (CESCG). The goal of the CESCG is to develop novel genomics and bioinformatics tools specifically for stem cell research. These technologies aim to advance our fundamental understanding of human development and disease mechanisms, improve current cell and tissue production methods, and accelerate personalized stem cell-based therapies.

The CESCG is a consortium between Stanford University, the Salk Institute and UC Santa Cruz. Together, the groups oversee or support more than 20 different research projects throughout California focused on generating and analyzing sequencing data from stem or progenitor cells. Sequencing technology today is not only used to decode DNA, but also used to study other genomic data like that provides information about how gene activity is regulated.

Many of the projects within the CESCG are using these sequencing techniques to define the basic genetic properties of specific cell types, and will use this information to create better iPSC-based tissue models. For example, scientists can determine what genes are turned on or off in cells by analyzing raw data from RNA sequencing experiments (RNA is like a photocopy of DNA sequences and is the cell’s way of carrying out the instructions contained in the DNA. This technology sequences and identifies all the RNA that is generated in a tissue or cell at a specific moment).  Single cell RNA sequencing, made possible by techniques such as Drop-seq mentioned in yesterday’s blog, are now further revealing the diversity of cell types within tissues and creating more exact reference RNA sequences to identify a specific cell type.  By comparing RNA sequencing data from single cells of stem cell-based models to previously referenced cell types, researchers can estimate how accurate, or physiologically relevant, those stem cell models are.

Such comparative analyses can only be done using powerful software that can compare millions of sequence data at the same time. Part of a field termed bioinformatics, these activities are a significant portion of the CESCG and several software tools are being created within the Initiative.  Josh Stuart, a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz School of Engineering and a primary investigator in the CESCG, explained their team’s vision:

Josh Stuart

“A major challenge in the field is recognizing cell types or different states of the same cell type from raw data. Another challenge is integrating multiple data sets from different labs and figuring out how to combine measurements from different technologies. At the CESCG, we’re developing bioinformatics models that trace through all this data. Our goal is to create a database of these traces where each dot is a cell and the curves through these dots explain how the cells are related to one another.”

Stuart’s hope is that scientists will input their stem cell data into the CESCG database and receive a scorecard that explains how accurate their cell model is based on a specific genetic profile. The scorecard will help will not only provide details on the identity of their cells, but will also show how they relate to other cell types found in their database.

The Brain of Cells

An image of a 3D brain organoid grown from stem cells in the Kriegstein Lab at UCSF. (Photo by Elizabeth DiLullo)

A good example of how this database will work is a project called the Brain of Cells (BOC). It’s a collection of single cell RNA sequencing data from thousands of fetal-derived brain cells provided by multiple labs. The idea is that researchers will input RNA sequencing data from the stem cell-derived brain cells they make in their labs and the BOC will give them back a scorecard that describes what types of cells they are and their developmental state by comparing them to the referenced brain cells.

One of the labs that is actively involved in this project and is providing the bulk of the BOC datasets is Arnold Kriegstein’s lab at UC San Francisco. Aparna Bhaduri, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kriegstein lab working on the BOC project, outlined the goal of the BOC and how it will benefit researchers:

“The goal of the Brain of Cells project is to find ways to leverage existing datasets to better understand the cells in the developing human brain. This tool will allow researchers to compare cell-based models (such as stem cell-derived 3D organoids) to the actual developing brain, and will create a query-able resource for researchers in the stem cell community.”

Pablo Cordero, a former postdoc in Josh Stuart’s lab who designed a bioinformatics tool used in BOC called SCIMITAR, explained how the BOC project is a useful exercise in combining single cell data from different external researchers into one map that can predict cell type or cell fate.

“There is no ‘industry standard’ at the moment,” said Cordero. “We have to find various ways to perform these analyses. Approximating the entire human cell lineage is the holy grail of regenerative medicine since in theory, we would have maps of gene circuits that guide cell fate decisions.”

Once the reference data from BOC is ready, the group will use a bioinformatics program called Sample Psychic to create the scorecards for outside researchers. Clay Fischer, project manager of the CESCG at UC Santa Cruz, described how Sample Psychic works:

Clay Fischer

“Sample Psychic can look at how often genes are being turned off and on in cells. It uses this information to produce a scorecard, which shows how closely the data from your cells maps up to the curated cell types and can be used to infer the probability of the cell type.”

The BOC group believes that the analyses and data produced in this effort will be of great value to the research community and scientists interested in studying developmental neuroscience or neurodegeneration.

What’s next?

The Brain of Cells project is still in its early stages, but soon scientists will be able to use this nifty tool to help them build better and more accurate models of human brain development and brain-related diseases.

CESCG is also pursuing stem cell data driven projects focused on developing similar databases and scorecards for heart cells and pancreatic cells. These genomics and bioinformatics tools are pushing the envelope to a day when scientists can connect the dots between how different cell states and cell fates are determined by computational analysis and leverage this information to generate better iPSC-based systems for disease modeling in the lab or therapeutics in the clinic.


Related Links:

Stem Cell Stories That Caught our Eye: Insights into a healthy brain, targeting mutant cancers and commercializing cell therapies

Here’s your weekly roundup of interesting stem cell stories!

Partnership for a healthy brain. To differentiate or not to differentiate. That is the question the stem cells in our tissues and organs face.

In the case of the brain, neural precursor cells can either remain in a stem cell state or they can differentiate into mature brain cells called neurons and astrocytes. Scientists are interested in understanding how the brain maintains the balance between these different cell states in order to understand how disruption to this balance are associated with psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.

Scientists from the Salk Institute, led by Genetics Professor Rusty Gage, published a study this week in Cell Stem Cell that sheds light on how this imbalance can cause brain disease. They found that a partnership between two proteins determines whether a neural precursor develops into a neuron or an astrocyte.

One of these proteins is called Nup153. It’s a protein that’s part of the nuclear pore complex, which sits on the surface of the nuclear membrane and controls the entry and exit of various proteins and molecules. In collaboration with another Salk team under the leadership of Martin Hetzer, Gage discovered that Nup153 was expressed at different levels depending on the cell type. Neural precursors had high levels of Nup153 protein, immature neurons had what they defined as an intermediate level while astrocytes had the lowest level.

When they blocked the function of Nup153, neural precursors differentiated, which led them to conclude that the levels of Nup153 can influence the fate of neural precursor cells. The teams also discovered that Nup153 interacts with the transcription factor Sox2 and that the levels of Sox2 in the different cell types was similar to the levels of Nup153.

A fluorescent microscopy image shows Nup153 (red) in pore complexes encircling and associating with Sox2 (green) in a precursor cell nucleus. Credit: Salk Institute/Waitt Center

In a Salk News release, first author on the study, Tomohisa Toda, explained how their findings shed light on basic cellular processes:

“The fact that we were able to connect transcription factors, which are mobile switches, to the pore complex, which is a very stable structure, offers a clue as to how cells maintain their identity through regulated gene expression.”

Gage’s team will next study how this partnership between the nuclear pore complex and transcription factors can influence the function of neurons in hopes of gaining more understanding of how an imbalance in these interactions can lead to neurological diseases.

“Increasingly, we are learning that diseases like schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s all have a cellular basis. So we are eager to understand how specific brain cells develop, what keeps them healthy and why advancing age or other factors can lead to disease.”

Tomohisa Toda and Rusty Gage. Credit: Salk Institute

Targeting KRAS Mutant Cancer.

CIRM-funded scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new strategy to target cancers that are caused by a mutation in the KRAS gene. Their findings were published in the journal Cancer Discovery.

The KRAS protein is essential for normal signaling processes in tissues, but mutant versions of this protein can cause cancer. According to a UC San Diego Health news release about the study, “there are currently no effective treatments for the 95 percent of pancreatic cancers and up to 30 percent of non-small cell lung cancers with KRAS mutations.”

To address this need, the team identified a biomarker called αvb3 that is associated with cancers dependent on the KRAS mutation. They observed that a protein called Galectin-3 binds to αvb3, which is an integrin receptor on the surface of cancer cells, to promote mutant KRAS’s cancer-causing ability.

This realization offered the team a path towards potential treatments. By inhibiting Galectin-3 with a drug called GCS-100, the scientists would make KRAS-addicted cancers go cold turkey. Senior author on the study, David Cheresh, explained,

“This may be among the first approaches to successfully target KRAS mutant cancers. Previously, we didn’t understand why only certain KRAS-initiated cancers would remain addicted to the mutation. Now we understand that expression of integrin αvb3 creates the addiction to KRAS. And it’s those addicted cancers that we feel will be most susceptible to targeting this pathway using Galectin-3 inhibitors.”

Cheresh concluded that this novel approach could pave the way for a personalized medicine approach for KRAS-addicted cancers.

“KRAS mutations impact a large number of patients with cancer. If a patient has a KRAS mutant cancer, and the cancer is also positive for αvb3, then the patient could be a candidate for a therapeutic that targets this pathway. Our work suggests a personalized medicine approach to identify and exploit KRAS addicted tumors, providing a new opportunity to halt the progression of tumors that currently have no viable targeted therapeutic options.”

Commercializing cell therapy.

Our friends at RegMedNet made an infographic that illustrates how cell therapies have developed over time and how these therapies are advancing towards commercialization.

The infographic states, “The cell therapy industry is rapidly evolving, with new techniques, technology and applications being developed all the time. After some high-profile failures, all eyes are on regulating existing therapies to ensure patient safety is paramount. Legislators, regulators and other stakeholders around the world are navigating a difficult line between hope, hype and the scientific evidence.”

Check out their timeline below and visit the RegMedNet website for more news and information about the regenerative medicine field.

Scientists fix heart disease mutation in human embryos using CRISPR

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

Shoukhrat Mitalipov (Leah Nash, New York Times)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New stem cell technique gives brain support cells a starring role

Gage et al

The Salk team. From left: Krishna Vadodaria, Lynne Moore, Carol Marchetto, Arianna Mei, Fred H. Gage, Callie Fredlender, Ruth Keithley, Ana Diniz Mendes. Photo courtesy Salk Institute

Astrocytes are some of the most common cells in the brain and central nervous system but they often get overlooked because they play a supporting role to the more glamorous neurons (even though they outnumber them around 50 to 1). But a new way of growing those astrocytes outside the brain could help pave the way for improved treatments for stroke, Alzheimer’s and other neurological problems.

Astrocytes – which get their name because of their star shape (Astron – Greek for “star” and “kyttaron” meaning cell) – have a number of key functions in the brain. They provide physical and metabolic support for neurons; they help supply energy and fuel to neurons; and they help with detoxification and injury repair, particularly in terms of reducing inflammation.

Studying these astrocytes in the lab has not been easy, however, because existing methods of producing them have been slow, cumbersome and not altogether effective at replicating their many functions.

Finding a better way

Now a team at the Salk Institute, led by CIRM-funded Professor Fred “Rusty” Gage, has developed a way of using stem cells to create astrocytes that is faster and more effective.

Their work is published in the journal Stem Cell Reports. In a news release, Gage says this is an important discovery:

“This work represents a big leap forward in our ability to model neurological disorders in a dish. Because inflammation is the common denominator in many brain disorders, better understanding astrocytes and their interactions with other cell types in the brain could provide important clues into what goes wrong in disease.”

Stylized microscopy image of an astrocyte (red) and neuron (green). (Salk Institute)

In a step by step process the Salk team used a series of chemicals, called growth factors, to help coax stem cells into becoming, first, generic brain cells, and ultimately astrocytes. These astrocytes not only behaved like the ones in our brain do, but they also have a particularly sensitive response to inflammation. This gives the team a powerful tool in helping develop new treatment to disorders of the brain.

But wait, there’s more!

As if that wasn’t enough, the researchers then used the same technique to create astrocytes from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – adult cells, such as skin, that have been re-engineered to have the ability to turn into any other kind of cell in the body. Those man-made astrocytes also showed the same characteristics as natural ones do.

Krishna Vadodaria, one of the lead authors on the paper, says having these iPSC-created astrocytes gives them a completely new tool to help explore brain development and disease, and hopefully develop new treatments for those diseases.

“The exciting thing about using iPSCs is that if we get tissue samples from people with diseases like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s or depression, we will be able to study how their astrocytes behave, and how they interact with neurons.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: brains, brains and more brains!

This week we bring you three separate stories about the brain. Two are exciting new advances that use stem cells to understand the brain and the third is plain creepy.

Bioengineering better brains. Lab grown mini-brains got an upgrade thanks to a study published this week in Nature Biotechnology. Mini-brains are tiny 3D organs that harbor similar cell types and structures found in the human brain. They are made from pluripotent stem cells cultured in laboratory bioreactors that allow these cells to mature into brain tissue in the span of a month.

The brain organoid technology was first published back in 2013 by Austrian scientists Jürgen Knoblich and Madeline Lancaster. They used mini-brains to study human brain development and a model a birth defect called microcephaly, which causes abnormally small heads in babies. Mini-brains filled a void for scientists desperate for better, more relevant models of human brain development. But the technology had issues with consistency and produced organoids that varied in size, structure and cell type.

Cross-section of a mini-brain. (Madeline Lancaster/MRC-LMB)

Fast forward four years and the same team of scientists has improved upon their original method by adding a bioengineering technique that will generate more consistent mini-brains. Instead of relying on the stem cells to organize themselves into the proper structures in the brain, the team developed a biological scaffold made of microfilaments that guides the growth and development of stem cells into organoids. They called these “engineered cerebral organoids” or enCORs for short.

In a news feature on IMBA, Jürgen Knoblich explained that enCORs are more reproducible and representative of the brain’s architecture, thus making them more effective models for neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.

“An important hallmark of the bioengineered organoids is their increased surface to volume ratio. Because of their improved tissue architecture, enCORs can allow for the study of a broader array of neurological diseases where neuronal positioning is thought to be affected, including lissencephaly (smooth brain), epilepsy, and even autism and schizophrenia.”

Salk team finds genetic links between brain’s immune cells and neurological disorders. (Todd Dubnicoff)

Dysfunction of brain cells called microglia have been implicated in a wide range of neurologic disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, autism and schizophrenia. But a detailed examination of these cells has proved difficult because they don’t grow well in lab dishes. And attempts to grow microglia from stem cells is hampered by the fact that the cell type hasn’t been characterized enough for researchers to know how to distinguish it from related cell types found in the blood.

By performing an extensive analysis of microglia gene activity, Salk Institute scientists have now pinpointed genetic links between these cells and neurological disease. These discoveries also demonstrate the importance of the microglia’s environment within the brain to maintain its identity. The study results were reported in Science.

Microglia are important immune cells in the brain. They are related to macrophages which are white blood cells that roam through the body via the circulatory system and gobble up damaged or dying cells as well as foreign invaders. Microglia also perform those duties in the brain and use their eating function to trim away faulty or damage nerve connections.

To study a direct source of microglia, the team worked with neurosurgeons to obtain small samples of brain tissue from patients undergoing surgery for epilepsy, a tumor or stroke. Microglia were isolated from healthy regions of brain tissue that were incidentally removed along with damaged or diseased brain tissue.

Salk and UC San Diego scientists conducted a vast survey of microglia (pictured here), revealing links to neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric illnesses. (Image: Nicole Coufal)

A portion of the isolated microglia were immediately processed to take a snap shot of gene activity. The researchers found that hundreds of genes in the microglia had much higher activities compared to those same genes in macrophages. But when the microglia were transferred to petri dishes, gene activity in general dropped. In fact, within six hours of tissue collection, the activity of over 2000 genes in the cells had dropped significantly. This result suggests the microglial rely on signals in the brain to stimulate their gene activity and may explain why they don’t grow well once removed from that environment into lab dishes.

Of the hundreds of genes whose activity were boosted in microglia, the researchers tracked down several that were linked to several neurological disorders. Dr. Nicole Coufal summarized these results and their implications in a Salk press release:

“A really high proportion of genes linked to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia are much more highly expressed in microglia than the rest of the brain. That suggests there’s some kind of link between microglia and the diseases.”

Future studies are needed to explain the exact nature of this link. But with these molecular descriptions of microglia gene activity now in hand, the researchers are in a better position to study microglia’s role in disease.

A stem cell trial to bring back the dead, brain-dead that is. A somewhat creepy stem cell story resurfaced in the news this week. A company called Bioquark in Philadelphia is attempting to bring brain-dead patients back to life by injecting adult stem cells into their spinal cords in combination with other treatments that include protein blend injections, electrical nerve stimulation and laser therapy. The hope is that this combination stem cell therapy will generate new neurons that can reestablish lost connections in the brain and bring it back to life.

Abstract image of a neuron. (Dom Smith/STAT)

You might wonder why the company is trying multiple different treatments simultaneously. In a conversation with STAT news, Bioquark CEO Ira Pastor explained,

“It’s our contention that there’s no single magic bullet for this, so to start with a single magic bullet makes no sense. Hence why we have to take a different approach.”

Bioquark is planning to relaunch a clinical trial testing its combination therapy in Latin America sometime this year. The company previously attempted to launch its first trial in India back in April of 2016, but it never got off the ground because it failed to get clearance from India’s Drug Controller General.

STATnews staff writer Kate Sheridan called the trial “controversial” and raised questions about how it would impact patients and their families.

“How do researchers complete trial paperwork when the person participating is, legally, dead? If the person did regain brain activity, what kind of functional abilities would he or she have? Are families getting their hopes up for an incredibly long-shot cure?”

Scientists also have questions mainly about whether this treatment will actually work or is just a shot in the dark. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Bioquark has no preclinical evidence that its combination treatment is effective in animal models. The STAT piece details how the treatments have been tested individually for other conditions such as stroke and coma, but not in brain-dead patients. To further complicate things, there is no consensus on how to define brain death in patients, so patient improvements observed during the trial could be unrelated to the treatment.

STAT asked expert doctors in the field whether Bioquark’s strategy was feasible. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ed Cooper said that there’s no way electric stimulation would work, pointing out that the technique requires a functioning brain stem which brain-dead patients don’t have. Pediatric surgeon Dr. Charles Cox, who works on a stem cell treatment for traumatic brain injury and is unrelated to Bioquark, commented, “it’s not the absolute craziest thing I’ve ever heard, but I think the probability of that working is next to zero.”

But Pastor seems immune to the skepticism and naysayers.

“I give us a pretty good chance. I just think it’s a matter of putting it all together and getting the right people and the right minds on it.”