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.


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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.”

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.

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.

Rhythmic brain circuits built from stem cells

The TV commercial is nearly 20 years old but I remember it vividly: a couple is driving down a street when they suddenly realize the music on their tape deck is in sync with the repetitive activity on the street. From the guy casually dribbling a basketball to people walking along the sidewalk to the delivery people passing packages out of their truck, everything and everyone is moving rhythmically to the beat.

The ending tag line was, “Sometimes things just come together,” which is quite true. Many of our basic daily activities like breathing and walking just come together as a result of repetitive movement. It’s easy to take them for granted but those rhythmic patterns ultimately rely on very intricate, interconnected signals between nerve cells, also called neurons, in the brain and spinal cord.

Circuitoids: a neural network in a lab dish

A CIRM-funded study published yesterday in eLife by Salk Institute scientists reports on a method to mimic these repetitive signals in a lab dish using neurons grown from embryonic stem cells. This novel cell circuitry system gives the researchers a tool for gaining new insights into neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and ALS, and may even provide a means to fix neurons damaged by injury or disease.

The researchers changed or specialized mouse embryonic stem cells into neurons that either stimulate nerve signals, called excitatory neurons, or neurons that block nerve signals, called inhibitory neurons. Growing these groups of cells together led to spontaneous rhythmic nerve signals. These clumps of cells containing about 50,000 neurons each were dubbed circuitoids by the team.

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Confocal microscope immunofluorescent image of a spinal cord neural circuit made entirely from stem cells and termed a “circuitoid.” Credit: Salk Institute.

Making neural networks dance to a different beat

A video produced by the Salk Institute (see below), shows some fascinating microscopy visualizations of these circuitoids’ repetitive signals. In the video, team leader Samuel Pfaff explains that changing the ratio of excitatory vs inhibitory neurons had noticeable effects on the rhythm of the nerve impulses:

“What we were able to do is combine different ratios of cell types and study properties of the rhythmicity of the circuitoid. And that rhythmicity could be very tightly control depending on the cellular composition of the neural networks that we were forming. So we could regulate the speed [of the rhythmicity] which is kind of equivalent to how fast you’re walking.”

It’s possible that the actual neural networks in our brains have the flexibility to vary the ratio of the active excitatory to inhibitory neurons as a way to allow adjustments in the body’s repetitive movements. But the complexity of those networks in the human brain are staggering which is why these circuitoids could help:

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

“It’s still very difficult to contemplate how large groups of neurons with literally billions if not trillions of connections take information and process it,” says Pfaff in a press release. “But we think that developing this kind of simple circuitry in a dish will allow us to extract some of the principles of how real brain circuits operate. With that basic information maybe we can begin to understand how things go awry in disease.”

Growing a rat pancreas in a mouse with stem cells & CRISPR: a solution for the organ shortage crisis?

Right now, about 120,000 Americans are on a waiting list for an organ transplant and 22 will die today before any organs become available. The plain truth is there aren’t enough organ donors to meet the demand. And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of available organ donors has remained static over the past decade. How can we overcome this crisis?

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The need for organ transplants is growing but the number of donors is stagnant. Image: U.S. Dept. Human Health Services

One answer may be stem cells. These “blank slate” cells can specialize into virtually any cell type in the body which has many scientists pursuing the holy grail of stem cell research: creating an unlimited supply of human organs. Today, a team of Salk Institute scientists report in Cell that they’ve taken an early but important step toward that goal by showing it’s possible to grow rat organs within a mouse. The results bode well for not only organ transplants but also for the study of human development and disease.

Chimera – monster or medical marvel?
Our regular Stem Cellar readers will be familiar with several fascinating studies using stem cell-based 3D bioprinters or bioscaffolds which aim to one day enable the manufacturing of human tissues and organs. Instead of taking this engineering approach, the Salk team seeks a strategy in which chimeric animals are bred to grow human organs. The term “chimeric” is borrowed from Greek mythology that told tales of the chimera, a monster with a lion’s heads, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail.

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The chimera of Greek Mythology: part lion, goat and snake. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The team’s first set of experiments explored the feasibility of this method by first focusing on rat-mouse chimeras. Reprogramming skin cells collected from rat tails, the scientists generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – cells with the embryonic stem cell-like ability to become any cell type – and injected them into very early stage mouse embryos. The embryos were then implanted into surrogate female mice and successfully carried to term. Examination of the resulting mouse pups showed that their tissues and organs contained a patchwork of both rat and mouse cells.

And for my next trick, I will make a rat pancreas in a mouse
Now, if the ultimate goal is to grow organs that are 100% human in a host animal, an organ that merely has a random patchwork human cells would miss the mark. To show there’s a way around this problem, the Salk team used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to generate mouse embryos that lacked a gene that’s critical for the development of the pancreas. Without the gene, no pancreas forms and the mice died shortly after birth. But when the rat iPSCs were integrated into the gene edited mice embryos, the rat cells picked up the slack as the embryo developed, resulting in chimeric mice with rat pancreases.

Using the same CRISPR gene editing strategy, the researchers also grew rat hearts, and if you can believe it, rat eyes in the chimeric mice. On top of that, the mice in these experiments were healthy with most reaching adulthood and one living two years, an elderly age for mice.

A first step toward growing patient-specific human organs in large animals
One small, actually big, problem is that mice are much too little to serve as chimeric hosts for human organs. So the team repeated these mixed species experiments in pigs which are much better matched to humans. In this case, they added human iPSCs to the pig embryos, implanted them into female pigs and let the embryos develop for four weeks. Although it wasn’t as efficient as the rat-mouse chimeras, the researchers did indeed observe human cells that had incorporated into the chimera and were showing the early signs of specializing in different cell types within the implanted pig embryos.

This work is the first time human iPSCs have been incorporated into large animal species (they also got it to work with cattle) and many years of lab work remain before this approach can help solves the organ shortage crisis. But the potential applications are spellbinding. Imagine a patient in need of an organ transplant: a small skin biopsy is collected to make iPSCs and, using this chimeric animal approach, a patient-derived organ could be grown.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s team leader, talked about this possibility and more in a press release:

“Of course, the ultimate goal of chimeric research is to learn whether we can use stem-cell and gene-editing technologies to generate genetically-matched human tissues and organs, and we are very optimistic that continued work will lead to eventual success. But in the process we are gaining a better understanding of species evolution as well as human embryogenesis and disease that is difficult to get in other ways.”

Ethical concerns
Now, if the idea of breeding pigs or cows with human organs make you a little uneasy, you aren’t alone.  In fact, the National Institutes of Health announced in 2015 that they had halted funding research that introduces human stem cells into other animals. They want more time “to evaluate the state of the science in this area, the ethical issues that should be considered, and the relevant animal welfare concerns associated with these types of studies.”  To read more discussion on this topic, read this MIT Technology Review article from a year ago.

 

Brain Models Get an Upgrade: 3D Mini-Brains

Every year, companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google work tirelessly to upgrade their computer, software and smartphone technologies to satisfy growing demands for more functionality. Much like these companies, biomedical scientists work tirelessly to improve the research techniques and models they use to understand and treat human disease.

Today, I’ll be talking about a cool stem cell technology that is an upgrade of current models of neurological diseases. It involves growing stem cells in a 3D environment and turning them into miniature organs called organoids that have similar structures and functions compared to real organs. Scientists have developed techniques to create organoids for many different parts of the body including the brain, gut, lungs and kidneys. These tiny 3D models are useful for understanding how organs are formed and how viruses or genetic mutations can affect their development and ability to function.

Brain Models Get an Upgrade

Organoids are especially useful for modeling complex neurological diseases where current animal and 2D cell-based models lack the ability to fully represent the cause, nature and symptoms of a disease. The first cerebral, or brain, organoids were generated in 2013 by Dr. Madeline Lancaster in Austria. These “mini-brains” contained nerve cells and structures found in the cortex, the outermost layer of the human brain.

Since their inception, mini-brains have been studied to understand brain development, test new drugs and dissect diseases like microcephaly – a disease that causes abnormal brain development and is characterized by very small skulls. Mini-brains are still a new technology, and the question of whether these organoids are representative of real human brains in their anatomy and behavior has remained unanswered until now.

Published today in Cell Reports, scientists from the Salk Institute reported that mini-brains are more like human brains compared to 2D cell-based models where brain cells are grown in a single layer on a petri dish. To generate mini-brains, they collaborated with a European team that included the Lancaster lab. They grew human embryonic stem cells in a 3D environment with a cocktail of chemicals that prompted them to develop into brain tissue over a two-month period.

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

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

After generating the mini-brains, the next step was to prove that these organoids were an upgrade for modeling brain development. The teams found that the cells and structures formed in the mini-brains were more like human brain tissue at the same stage of early brain development than the 2D models.

Dr. Juergen Knoblich, co-senior author of the new paper and head of the European lab explained in a Salk News Release, “Our work demonstrates the remarkable degree to which human brain development can be recapitulated in a dish in cerebral organoids.”

Are Mini-Brains the Real Thing?

The next question the teams asked was whether mini-brains had similar functions and behaviors to real brains. To answer that question, the scientists turned to epigenetics. This is a fancy word for the study of chemical modifications that influence gene expression without altering the DNA sequence in your genome. The epigenome can be thought of as a set of chemical tags that help coordinate which genes are turned on and which are turned off in a cell. Epigenetics plays important roles in human development and in causing certain diseases.

The Salk team studied the epigenomes of cells in the mini-brains to see whether their patterns were similar to cells found in human brain tissue. Interestingly, they found that the epigenetic patterns in the 3D mini-brains were not like those of real brain tissue at the same developmental stage. Instead they shared a commonality with the 2D brain models and had random epigenetic patterns. While the reason for these results is still unknown, the authors explained that it is common for cells and tissues grown in a lab dish to have these differences.

In a Salk news release, senior author and Salk professor Dr. Joseph Ecker said that even though the current mini-brain models aren’t perfect yet, scientists can still gather valuable information from them in the meantime.

“Our findings show that cerebral organoids as a 3D model of brain function are getting closer to a real brain than 2D models, so perhaps by using the epigenetic pattern as a gauge we can get even closer.”

And while the world eagerly waits for the next release of the iPhone 7, neuroscientists will be eagerly waiting for a new and improved version of mini-brains. Hopefully the next upgrade will produce organoids that behave more like the real thing and can model complex neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, where so many questions remain unanswered.