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:

Advertisements

Stem Cell Tools: Helping Scientists Model Complex Diseases

This blog is part of the Month of CIRM series and the first of two blogs focused on how CIRM-funded infrastructure initiatives are developing useful tools to advance stem cell research. 

Human stem cells are powerful tools for studying human disease.  Animal models like mice have been and continue to be important for studying physiological systems, but they are still different than human systems.  Other types of human cells studied in the lab often are isolated from cancers or modified to multiply indefinitely.  However, the genetic DNA blueprint of these modified cells are irreparably altered from the normal tissues that they came from.

Human pluripotent stem cells are unique in that they can be grown in the lab and turned into any type of normal cell in the body.  Many scientists now believe that creating such stem cell lines from patients and developing ‘disease-in-a-dish’ models will provide important insights that will lead to treatments for the disorders from which they came.  Challenges still remain to develop these models to their fullest potential.  Because the genetics underlying human disease is complex, detailed genetic information about each stem cell line, as well as a large number of lines  to represent the genetic variability between patients will be needed to make progress.

To address this need, CIRM funded the creation of the world’s largest induced pluripotent stem cell bank, which we call the CIRM iPSC Repository.  iPSCs are similar to embryonic stem cells in that they can develop into any cell type found in the body, but they differ in how they are derived. Scientists can take human skin or blood cells and genetically reprogram them into iPSCs that have the same genetic makeup, including any disease-causing mutations, as the person from which the original cells were taken. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are derived from left over embryos donated by couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments.

The CIRM iPSC Repository was established to harness the power of iPSCs as tools for disease modeling and drug discovery. The Repository currently offers scientists around the world access to over 1500 high-quality iPSC lines covering diseases of the brain, heart, liver, lung, and eye, and the collection will eventually hold over 3000 lines.  All iPSC lines are linked to publicly-accessible demographic and clinical information.

Making the Cell Lines

Making the iPSC Repository was no easy task – it took a village of doctors, scientists, patients and healthy volunteers. First, clinicians across California collected blood and skin samples from over 2800 people including individuals with common diseases, rare diseases and healthy controls. CIRM then awarded a grant to Cellular Dynamics International to create iPSC lines from these donors, and a second grant to the Coriell Institute to store and distribute the lines to interested labs around the world. Creating such a large number of lines in a single concerted effort has been a challenging logistical feat that has taken almost five years and is projected to finish in early 2018.

Joachim Hallmayer

We spoke with one of the tissue collectors, a scientist named Dr. Joachim Hallmayer at Stanford University, about the effort it took to obtain tissue samples for the Repository. Hallmayer is a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford who studies Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children. With funding from a CIRM Tissue Collection for Disease Modeling award, Hallmayer collected tissue samples from children with ASD and children with normal development. His efforts resulted in the 164 ASD and 134 control samples for the Repository.

Hallmayer emphasized that each sample donation required significant attention and education from the clinical staff to the donor.  Communicating with patients and walking them through the consent process for donating their tissue for this purpose is an extremely important issue that is often overlooked. “Conveying information about the tissue collection process to patients takes a lot of time. However, deconstructing the consent process is essential for patients to understand what they are donating and why,” explained Hallmayer.

Now that the ASD lines are available, Hallmayer and his colleague Dr. Ruth O’Hara are formulating a plan to model ASD in a dish by differentiating the iPSC lines into neurons affected by this disorder. Says O’Hara:

Ruth O’Hara

“While the examination of live tissue from other organ systems has become increasingly viable, examining live neurons from patients with brain disorders has simply not been possible. Using iPSC-derived neurons, for the first time we can study live nerve cells from actual patients and compare these cells to those from humans without the disorder.”

Using iPSCs to Model Psychiatric Disorders

Ultimately, the goal of iPSCs for modeling disease is to identify mechanisms and therapeutic targets for the disorders that they represent.  Studying a disease through a single iPSC line may not shed enough light on that disorder.  Just as people have diverse traits, the way that a disease can affect individuals is also diverse.  Studying large numbers of lines in a time and cost-efficient manner that represent these diverse traits, and the genetic causes that underlie them, can be a powerful method to understand and address diseases.

 To leverage the iPSC collection for this purpose, CIRM and a group of scientists at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and Harvard University have entered into a collaboration to study psychiatric disorders such as ASD.  Because the donor samples were collected on the basis of clinical information, the genetic information about what caused their disease remains unknown.  Therefore, the Stanley Center will embark on whole genome sequencing (WGS) of hundreds of lines from the CIRM iPSC repository. Adding donor WGS sequence information to the CIRM repository will significantly increase its value, as scientists will be able to use DNA sequence information to select the ideal lines for disease modeling and therapeutic discovery efforts. The collaboration aims to identify the genes that shape neuronal phenotypes in iPSC-derived neurons from patients with psychiatric disorders.

“A central challenge today is to discover how inherited genetic variation gives rise to functional variation in the properties of neurons and other cells,” said Steven McCarroll, Director of Genetics at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, and associate professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics. “We hope with the analysis of cells from very large numbers of genetically diverse individuals will begin to address longstanding problems at the interface of human genetics and biology.”

iPSC derived neurons growing in a dish. (Image courtesy of Ralda Nehme, Research Scientist at the Broad Institute).

Such efforts require technologies such as Drop-seq, developed in the McCarroll lab, where genome-wide expression of thousands of separate cells can be analyzed in one experiment. These efforts also rely on scaling functional analysis of stem cell-based disease models, a vexing bottleneck for the field. “The CIRM iPSC Repository is the largest and most ambitious of its kind”, said Kevin Eggan, Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University, and Director of Stem Cell Biology at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. Efforts underway in Dr. Eggan’s lab are directed at developing approaches to analyze large numbers of stem cell lines in parallel.

“The scale of the CIRM iPSC collection will allow us to investigate how variation that is common among many of us predisposes certain individuals to major mental illnesses such as autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. We are incredibly excited about entering this long-term collaboration.”

Members of the Eggan and McCarroll labs at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. (Image courtesy of Kiki Lilliehook)

From Cell Lines to Data

It’s clear from these stories, that the iPSC Repository is a unique and powerful tool for the stem cell research community. But for the rewards to be truly reaped, more tools are needed that will help scientists study these cell lines. This is where the CIRM Genomics Initiative comes into play.

Be sure to read Part 2 of our Stem Cell Tools series tomorrow to find out how our Genomics Initiative is funding the development of genomic and bioinformatics tools that will allow scientists to decipher complex stem cell data all the way from mapping the developmental states of cells to predicting the accuracy of stem cell-based models.

This blog was written in collaboration with Dr. Kiki Lilliehook, the Manager of the Stem Cell Program at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Caught our eye: new Americans 4 Cures video, better mini-brains reveal Zika insights and iPSC recipes go head-to-head

How stem cell research gives patients hope (Karen Ring).
You can learn about the latest stem cell research for a given disease in seconds with a quick google search. You’ll find countless publications, news releases and blogs detailing the latest advancements that are bringing scientists and clinicians closer to understanding why diseases happen and how to treat or cure them.

But one thing these forms of communications lack is the personal aspect. A typical science article explains the research behind the study at the beginning and ends with a concluding statement usually saying how the research could one day lead to a treatment for X disease. It’s interesting, but not always the most inspirational way to learn about science when the formula doesn’t change.

However, I’ve started to notice that more and more, institutes and organizations are creating videos that feature the scientists/doctors that are developing these treatments AND the patients that the treatments could one day help. This is an excellent way to communicate with the public! When you watch and listen to a patient talk about their struggles with their disease and how there aren’t effective treatments at the moment, it becomes clear why funding and advancing research is important.

We have a great example of a patient-focused stem cell video to share with you today thanks to our friends at Americans for Cures, a non-profit organization that advocates for stem cell research. They posted a new video this week in honor of Stem Cell Awareness Day featuring patients and patient advocates responding to the question, “What does stem cell research give you hope for?”. Many of these patients and advocates are CIRM Stem Cell Champions that we’ve featured on our website, blog, and YouTube channel.

Americans for Cures is encouraging viewers to take their own stab at answering this important question by sharing a short message (on their website) or recording a video that they will share with the stem cell community. We hope that you are up for the challenge!

Mini-brains help uncover some of Zika’s secrets (Kevin McCormack).
One of the hardest things about trying to understand how a virus like Zika can damage the brain is that it’s hard to see what’s going on inside a living brain. That’s not surprising. It’s not considered polite to do an autopsy of someone’s brain while they are still using it.

Human organoid_800x533

Microscopic image of a mini brain organoid, showing layered neural tissue and different groups of neural stem cells (in blue, red and magenta) giving rise to neurons (green). Image: Novitch laboratory/UCLA

But now researchers at UCLA have come up with a way to mimic human brains, and that is enabling them to better understand how Zika inflicts damage on a developing fetus.

For years researchers have been using stem cells to help create “mini brain organoids”, essentially clusters of some of the cells found in the brain. They were helpful in studying some aspects of brain behavior but limited because they were very small and didn’t reflect the layered complexity of the brain.

In a study, published in the journal Cell Reports, UCLA researchers showed how they developed a new method of creating mini-brain organoids that better reflected a real brain. For example, the organoids had many of the cells found in the human cortex, the part of the brain that controls thought, speech and decision making. They also found that the different cells could communicate with each other, the way they do in a real brain.

They used these organoids to see how the Zika virus attacks the brain, damaging cells during the earliest stages of brain development.

In a news release, Momoko Watanabe, the study’s first author, says these new organoids can open up a whole new way of looking at the brain:

“While our organoids are in no way close to being fully functional human brains, they mimic the human brain structure much more consistently than other models. Other scientists can use our methods to improve brain research because the data will be more accurate and consistent from experiment to experiment and more comparable to the real human brain.”

iPSC recipes go head-to-head: which one is best?
In the ten years since the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technique was first reported, many different protocols, or recipes, for reprogramming adult cells, like skin, into iPSCs have been developed. These variations bring up the question of which reprogramming recipe is best. This question isn’t the easiest to answer given the many variables that one needs to test. Due to the cost and complexity of the methods, comparisons of iPSCs generated in different labs are often performed. But one analysis found significant lab-to-lab variability which can really muck up the ability to make a fair comparison.

A Stanford University research team, led by Dr. Joseph Wu, sought to eliminate these confounding variables so that any differences found could be attributed specifically to the recipe. So, they tested six different reprogramming methods in the same lab, using cells from the same female donor. And in turn, these cells were compared to a female source of embryonic stem cells, the gold standard of pluripotent stem cells. They reported their findings this week in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Previous studies had hinted that the reprogramming protocol could affect the ability to fully specialize iPSCs into a particular cell type. But based on their comparisons, the protocol chosen did not have a significant impact on how well iPSCs can be matured. Differences in gene activity are a key way that researchers do side-by-side comparisons of iPSCs and embryonic stem cells. And based on the results in this study, the reprogramming method itself can influence the differences. A gene activity comparison of all the iPSCs with the embryonic stem cells found the polycomb repressive complex – a set of genes that play an important role in embryonic development and are implicated in cancer – had the biggest difference.

In a “Behind the Paper” report to the journal, first author Jared Churko, says that based on these findings, their lab now mostly uses one reprogramming protocol – which uses the Sendai virus to deliver the reprogramming genes to the cells:

“The majority of our hiPSC lines are now generated using Sendai virus. This is due to the ease in generating hiPSCs using this method as well as the little to no chance of transgene integration [a case in which a reprogramming gene inserts into the cells’ DNA which could lead to cancerous growth].”

Still, he adds a caveat that the virus does tend to linger in the cells which suggests that:

“cell source or reprogramming method utilized, each hiPSC line still requires robust characterization prior to them being used for downstream experimentation or clinical use.”

 

CIRM-Funded Clinical Trials Targeting Blood and Immune Disorders

This blog is part of our Month of CIRM series, which features our Agency’s progress towards achieving our mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

This week, we’re highlighting CIRM-funded clinical trials to address the growing interest in our rapidly expanding clinical portfolio. Today we are featuring trials in our blood and immune disorders portfolio, specifically focusing on sickle cell disease, HIV/AIDS, severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID, also known as bubble baby disease) and rare disease called chronic granulomatous disease (CGD).

CIRM has funded a total of eight trials targeting these disease areas, all of which are currently active. Check out the infographic below for a list of those trials.

For more details about all CIRM-funded clinical trials, visit our clinical trials page and read our clinical trials brochure which provides brief overviews of each trial.

CIRM-Funded Clinical Trials Targeting the Heart, Pancreas, and Kidneys

This blog is part of our Month of CIRM series, which features our Agency’s progress towards achieving our mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

This week, we’re highlighting CIRM-funded clinical trials to address the growing interest in our rapidly expanding clinical portfolio. Today we are featuring trials in our organ systems portfolio, specifically focusing on diseases of the heart/vasculature system, the pancreas and the kidneys.

CIRM has funded a total of nine trials targeting these disease areas, and eight of these trials are currently active. Check out the infographic below for a list of our currently active trials.

For more details about all CIRM-funded clinical trials, visit our clinical trials page and read our clinical trials brochure which provides brief overviews of each trial.

CIRM Board Appoints Dr. Maria Millan as President and CEO

Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM, at the September Board meeting. (Todd Dubnicoff, CIRM)

Yesterday was a big day for CIRM. Our governing Board convened for its September ICOC meeting and appointed Dr. Maria Millan as our new President and CEO. Dr. Millan has been serving as the Interim President/CEO since July, replacing former President Dr. Randal Mills.

Dr. Millan has been at CIRM since 2012 and was instrumental in the development of CIRM’s infrastructure programs including the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network and the agency’s Strategic Plan, a five-year plan that lays out our agency’s goals through 2020. Previously, Dr. Millan was the Vice President of Therapeutics at CIRM, helping the agency fund 23 new clinical trials since the beginning of 2016.

The Board vote to appoint Dr. Millan as President and CEO was unanimous and enthusiastic. Chairman of the Board, Jonathan Thomas, shared the Board’s sentiments when he said,

“Dr. Millan is absolutely the right person for this position. Having seen Dr. Millan as the Interim CEO of CIRM for three months and how she has operated in that position, I am even more enthusiastic than I was before. I am grateful that we have someone of Maria’s caliber to lead our Agency.”

Dr. Millan has pursued a career devoted to helping patients. Before working at CIRM, she was an organ transplant surgeon and researcher and served as an Associate Professor of Surgery and Director of the Pediatric Organ Transplant Program at Stanford University. Dr. Millan was also the Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at StemCells, Inc.

In her permanent role as President, Dr. Millan is determined to keep CIRM on track to achieve the goals outlined in our strategic plan and to achieve its mission to accelerate treatments to patients with unmet needs. She commented in a CIRM press release,

“I joined the CIRM team because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of patients. They are the reason why CIRM exists and why we fund stem cell research. I am humbled and very honored to be CIRM’s President and look forward to further implementing our agency’s Strategic Plan in the coming years.”

The Board also voted to fund two new Alpha Stem Cell Clinics at UC Davis and UC San Francisco and five new clinical trials. Three of the clinical awards went to projects targeting cancer.

The City of Hope received $12.8 million to fund a Phase 1 trial targeting malignant gliomas (an aggressive brain cancer) using CAR-T cell therapy. Forty Seven Inc. received $5 million for a Phase 1b clinical trial treating acute myeloid leukemia. And Nohla Therapeutics received $6.9 million for a Phase 2 trial testing a hematopoietic stem cell and progenitor cell therapy to help patients suffering from neutropenia, a condition that leaves people susceptible to deadly infections, after receiving chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia.

The other two trials target diabetes and end stage kidney failure. ViaCyte, Inc. was awarded $20 million to fund a Phase 1/2 clinical trial to test its PEC-Direct islet cell replacement therapy for high-risk type 1 diabetes. Humacyte Inc. received $14.1 million to fund a Phase 3 trial that is comparing the performance of its acellular bioengineered vessel with the current standard of dialysis treatment for kidney disease patients.

The Board also awarded $5.2 million to Stanford Medicine for a late stage preclinical project that will use CRISPR gene editing technology to correct the sickle cell disease mutation in blood-forming stem cells to treat patients with sickle cell disease. This award was particularly well timed as September is Sickle Cell Awareness month.

The Stanford team, led by Dr. Matthew Porteus, hopes to complete the final experiments required for them to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the FDA so they can be approved to start a clinical trial hopefully sometime in 2018. You can read more about Dr. Porteus’ work here and you can read our past blogs featuring Sickle Cell Awareness here and here.

With the Board’s vote yesterday, CIRM’s clinical trial count rises to 40 funded trials since its inception. 23 of these trials were funded after the launch of our Strategic Plan bringing us close to the half way point of funding 50 new clinical trials by 2020. With more “shots-on-goal” CIRM hopes to increase the chances that one of these trials will lead to an FDA-approved therapy for patients.


Related Links:

An unexpected link: immune cells send muscle injury signal to activate stem cell regeneration

We’ve written many blogs over the years about research focused on muscle stem cell function . Those stories describe how satellite cells, another name for muscle stem cells, lay dormant but jump into action to grow new muscle cells in response to injury and damage. And when satellite function breaks down with aging as well as with diseases like muscular dystrophy, the satellite cells drop in number and/or lose their capacity to divide, leading to muscle degeneration.

Illustration of satellite cells within muscle fibers. Image source: APSU Biology

One thing those research studies don’t focus on is the cellular and molecular signals that cause the satellite cells to say, “Hey! We need to start dividing and regenerating!” A Stanford research team examining this aspect of satellite cell function reports this week in Nature Communications that immune cells play an unexpected role in satellite cell activation. This study, funded in part by CIRM, provides a fundamental understanding of muscle regeneration and repair that could aid the development of novel treatments for muscle disorders.

ADAMTS1: a muscle injury signal?
To reach this conclusion, the research team drew upon previous studies that indicated a gene called Adamts1 was turned on more strongly in the activated satellite cells compared to the dormant satellite cells. The ADAMTS1 protein is a secreted protein so the researchers figured it’s possible it could act as a muscle injury signal that activates satellites cells. When ADAMTS1 was applied to mouse muscle fibers in a petri dish, satellite cells were indeed activated.

Next, the team examined ADAMTS1 in a mouse model of muscle injury and found the protein clearly increased within one day after muscle injury. This timing corresponds to when satellite cells drop out of there dormant state after muscle injury and begin dividing and specializing into new muscle cells. But follow up tests showed the satellite cells were not the source of ADAMTS1. Instead, a white blood cell called a macrophage appeared to be responsible for producing the protein at the site of injury. Macrophages, which literally means “big eaters”, patrol our organs and will travel to sites of injury and infection to keep them clean and healthy by gobbling up dead cells, bacteria and viruses. They also secrete various proteins to alert the rest of the immune system to join the fight against infection.

Immune cell’s double duty after muscle injury: cleaning up the mess and signaling muscle regeneration
To confirm the macrophages’ additional role as the transmitter of this ADAMTS1 muscle injury signal, the researchers generated transgenic mice whose macrophages produce abnormally high levels of ADAMTS1. The activation of satellite cells in these mice was much higher than in normal mice lacking this boost of ADAMTS1 production. And four months after birth, the increased activation led to larger muscles in the transgenic mice. In terms of muscle regeneration, one-month old transgenic mice recovered from muscle injury faster than normal mice. Stanford professor Brian Feldman, MD, PhD, the senior author of the study, described his team’s initial reaction to their findings in an interview with Scope, Stanford Medicine’s blog:

“While, in retrospect, it might make intuitive sense that the same cells that are sent into a site of injury to clean up the mess also carry the tools and signals needed to rebuild what was destroyed, it was not at all obvious how, or if, these two processes were biologically coupled. Our data show a direct link in which the clean-up crew releases a signal to launch the rebuild. This was a surprise.”

Further experiments showed that ADAMTS1 works by chopping up a protein called NOTCH that lies on the surface of satellite cells. NOTCH provides signals to the satellite cell to stay in a dormant state. So, when ADAMTS1 degrades NOTCH, the dormancy state of the satellite cells is lifted and they begin to divide and transform into muscle cells.

A pathway to novel muscle disorder therapies?
One gotcha with the ADAMTS1 injury signal is that too much activation can lead to a depletion of satellite cells. In fact, after 8 months, muscle regeneration actually weakened in the transgenic mice that were designed to persistently produce the protein. Still, this novel role of macrophages in stimulating muscle regeneration via the secreted ADAMTS1 protein opens a door for the Stanford team to explore new therapeutic approaches to treating muscle disorders:

“We are excited to learn that a single purified protein, that functions outside the cell, is sufficient to signal to muscle stem cells and stimulate them to differentiate into muscle,” says Dr. Feldman. “The simplicity of that type of signal in general and the extracellular nature of the mechanism in particular, make the pathway highly tractable to manipulation to support efforts to develop therapies that improve health.”

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Halting Brain Cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Stem Cell Awareness Day

Stopping brain cancer in its tracks.

Experiments by a team of NIH-funded scientists suggests a potential method for halting the expansion of certain brain tumors.Michelle Monje, M.D., Ph.D., Stanford University.

Scientists at Stanford Medicine discovered that you can halt aggressive brain cancers called high-grade gliomas by cutting off their supply of a signaling protein called neuroligin-3. Their research, which was funded by CIRM and the NIH, was published this week in the journal Nature. 

The Stanford team, led by senior author Michelle Monje, had previously discovered that neuroligin-3 dramatically spurred the growth of glioma cells in the brains of mice. In their new study, the team found that removing neuroligin-3 from the brains of mice that were transplanted with human glioma cells prevented the cancer cells from spreading.

Monje explained in a Stanford news release,

“We thought that when we put glioma cells into a mouse brain that was neuroligin-3 deficient, that might decrease tumor growth to some measurable extent. What we found was really startling to us: For several months, these brain tumors simply didn’t grow.”

The team is now exploring whether targeting neuroligin-3 will be an effective therapeutic treatment for gliomas. They tested two inhibitors of neuroligin-3 secretion and saw that both were effective in stunting glioma growth in mice.

Because blocking neuroligin-3 doesn’t kill glioma cells and gliomas eventually find ways to grow even in the absence of neuroligin-3, Monje is now hoping to develop a combination therapy with neuroligin-3 inhibitors that will cure patients of high-grade gliomas.

“We have a really clear path forward for therapy; we are in the process of working with the company that owns the clinically characterized compound in an effort to bring it to a clinical trial for brain tumor patients. We will have to attack these tumors from many different angles to cure them. Any measurable extension of life and improvement of quality of life is a real win for these patients.”

Parkinson’s Institute CIRM Research Featured on KTVU News.

The Bay Area Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center located in Sunnyvale, California, was recently featured on the local KTVU news station. The five-minute video below features patients who attend the clinic at the Parkinson’s Institute as well as scientists who are doing cutting edge research into Parkinson’s disease (PD).

Parkinson’s disease in a dish. Dopaminergic neurons made from PD induced pluripotent stem cells. (Image courtesy of Birgitt Schuele).

One of these scientists is Dr. Birgitt Schuele, who recently was awarded a discovery research grant from CIRM to study a new potential therapy for Parkinson’s using human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from PD patients. Schuele explains that the goal of her team’s research is to “generate a model for Parkinson’s disease in a dish, or making a brain in a dish.”

It’s worth watching the video in its entirety to learn how this unique institute is attempting to find new ways to help the growing number of patients being diagnosed with this degenerative brain disease.

Click on photo to view video.

Mark your calendars for Stem Cell Awareness Day!

Every year on the second Wednesday of October is Stem Cell Awareness Day (SCAD). This is a day that our agency started back in 2009, with a proclamation by former California Mayor Gavin Newsom, to honor the important accomplishments made in the field of stem cell research by scientists, doctors and institutes around the world.

This year, SCAD is on October 11th. Our Agency will be celebrating this day with a special patient advocate event on Tuesday October 10th at the UC Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento California. CIRM grantees Dr. Jan Nolta, the Director of UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, and Dr. Diana Farmer, Chair of the UC Davis Department of Surgery, will be talking about their CIRM-funded research developing stem cell models and potential therapies for Huntington’s disease and spina bifida (a birth defect where the spinal cord fails to fully develop). You’ll also hear an update on  CIRM’s progress from our President and CEO (Interim), Maria Millan, MD, and Chairman of the Board, Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD. If you’re interested in attending this event, you can RSVP on our Eventbrite Page.

Be sure to check out a list of other Stem Cell Awareness Day events during the month of October on our website. You can also follow the hashtag #StemCellAwarenessDay on Twitter to join in on the celebration!

One last thing. October is an especially fun month because we also get to celebrate Pluripotency Day on October 4th. OCT4 is an important gene that maintains stem cell pluripotency – the ability of a stem cell to become any cell type in the body – in embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells. Because not all stem cells are pluripotent (there are adult stem cells in your tissues and organs) it makes sense to celebrate these days separately. And who doesn’t love having more reasons to celebrate science?

Stories that caught our eye last week: dying cells trigger stem cells, CRISPR videogames and an obesity-stem cell link

A dying cell’s last breath triggers stem cell division. Most cells in your body are in a constant state of turnover. The cells of your lungs, for instance, replace themselves every 2 to 3 weeks and, believe it or not, you get a new intestine every 2 to 3 days. We can thank adult stem cells residing in these organs for producing the new replacement cells. But with this continual flux, how do the stem cells manage to generate just the right number of cells to maintain the same organ size? Just a slight imbalance would lead to either too few cells or too many which can lead to organ dysfunction and disease.

The intestine turnovers every five days. Stem cells (green) in the fruit fly intestine maintain organ size and structure. Image: Lucy Erin O’Brien/Stanford U.

Stanford University researchers published results on Friday in Nature that make inroads into explaining this fascinating, fundamental question about stem cell and developmental biology. Studying the cell turnover process of the intestine in fruit flies, the scientists discovered that, as if speaking its final words, a dying intestinal cell, or enterocyte, directly communicates with an intestinal stem cell to trigger it to divide and provide young, healthy enterocytes.

To reach this conclusion, the team first analyzed young enterocytes and showed that a protein these cells produce, called E-cadherin, blocks the release of a growth factor called EGF, a known stimulator of cell division. When young enterocytes became old and begin a process called programmed cell death, or apoptosis, the E-cadherin levels drop which removes the inhibition of EGF. As a result, a nearby stem cell now receives the EGF’s cell division signal, triggering it to divide and replace the dying cell. In her summary of this research in Stanford’s Scope blog, science writer Krista Conger explains how the dying cell’s signal to a stem cell ensures that there no net gain or loss of intestinal cells:

“The signal emitted by the dying cell travels only a short distance to activate only nearby stem cells. This prevents an across-the-board response by multiple stem cells that could result in an unwanted increase in the number of newly generated replacement cells.”

Because E-cadherin and the EGF receptor (EGFR) are each associated with certain cancers, senior author Lucy Erin O’Brien ponders the idea that her lab’s new findings may explain an underlying mechanism of tumor growth:

Lucy Erin O’Brien Image: Stanford U.

“Intriguingly, E-cadherin and EGFR are each individually implicated in particular cancers. Could they actually be cooperating to promote tumor development through some dysfunctional version of the normal renewal mechanism that we’ve uncovered?”

 

How a videogame could make gene editing safer (Kevin McCormack). The gene editing tool CRISPR has been getting a lot of attention this past year, and for good reason, it has the potential to eliminate genetic mutations that are responsible for some deadly diseases. But there are still many questions about the safety of CRISPR, such as how to control where it edits the genome and ensure it doesn’t cause unexpected problems.

Now a team at Stanford University is hoping to use a videogame to find answers to some of those questions. Here’s a video about their project:

The team is using the online game Eterna – which describes itself as “Empowering citizen scientists to invent medicine”. In the game, “players” can build RNA molecules that can then be used to turn on or off specific genes associated with specific diseases.

The Stanford team want “players” to design an RNA molecule that can be used as an On/Off switch for CRISPR. This would enable scientists to turn CRISPR on when they want it, but off when it is not needed.

In an article on the Stanford News website, team leader Howard Chang said this is a way to engage the wider scientific community in coming up with a solution:

Howard Chang
Photo: Stanford U.

“Great ideas can come from anywhere, so this is also an experiment in the democratization of science. A lot of people have hidden talents that they don’t even know about. This could be their calling. Maybe there’s somebody out there who is a security guard and a fantastic RNA biochemist, and they don’t even know it. The Eterna game is a powerful way to engage lots and lots of people. They’re not just passive users of information but actually involved in the process.”

They hope up to 100,000 people will play the game and help find a solution.

Altered stem cell gene activity partly to blame for obesity. People who are obese are often ridiculed for their weight problems because their condition is chalked up to a lack of discipline or self-control. But there are underlying biological processes that play a key role in controlling body weight which are independent of someone’s personality. It’s known that so-called satiety hormones – which are responsible for giving us the sensation that we’re full from a meal – are reduced in obese individuals compared to those with a normal weight.

Stem cells may have helped Al Roker’s dramatic weight loss after bariatric surgery. Photo: alroker.com

Bariatric surgery, which reduces the size of the stomach, is a popular treatment option for obesity and can lead to remarkable weight loss. Al Roker, the weatherman for NBC’s Today Show is one example that comes to mind of a weight loss success story after having this procedure. It turns out that the weight loss is not just due to having a smaller stomach and in turn smaller meals, but researchers have shown that the surgery also restores the levels of satiety hormones. So post-surgery, those individuals get a more normal, “I’m full”, feedback from their brains after eating a meal.

A team of Swiss doctors wanted to understand why the satiety hormone levels return to normal after bariatric surgery and this week they reported their answer in Scientific Reports. They analyzed enteroendocrine cells – the cells that release satiety hormones into the bloodstream and to the brain in response to food that enters the stomach and intestines – in obese individuals before and after bariatric surgery as well as a group of people with normal weight. The results showed that obese individuals have fewer enteroendocrine cells compared with the normal weight group. Post-surgery, those cells return to normal levels.

149147_web

Cells which can release satiety hormones are marked in green. For obese patients (middle), the number of these cells is markedly lower than for lean people (top) and for overweight patients three months after surgery (bottom). Image: University of Basil.

A deeper examination of the cells from the obese study group revealed altered patterns of gene activity in stem cells that are responsible for generating the enteroendocrine cells. In the post-surgery group, the patterns of gene activity, as seen in the normal weight group, are re-established. As mentioned in a University of Basil press release, these results stress that obesity is more than just a problem of diet and life-style choices:

“There is no doubt that metabolic factors are playing an important part. The study shows that there are structural differences between lean and obese people, which can explain lack of satiation in the obese.”

 

Researchers, beware: humanized mice not human enough to study stem cell transplants

A researcher’s data is only as good as the experimental techniques used to obtain those results. And a Stanford University study published yesterday in Cell Reports, calls into question the accuracy of a widely used method in mice that helps scientists gauge the human immune system’s response to stem cell-based therapies. The findings, funded in part by CIRM, urge a healthy dose of caution before using promising results from these mouse experiments as a green light to move on to human clinical trials.

Humanized mice aren’t quite human. Illustration: Pascal Gerard

Immune rejection of stem cell-based products is a major obstacle to translating these therapies from cutting-edge research into everyday treatments for the general population for people. If the genetic composition between the transplanted cells and the patient are mismatched, the patient’s immune system will see that cell therapy as foreign and will attack it. Unlike therapies derived from embryonic stem cells or from another person, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) are exciting because scientists can potentially develop stem cell-based therapies from a patient’s own cells which relieves most of the immune rejection fears.

But manufacturing iPSC-derived therapies for each patient can take months, not to mention a lot of money, to complete. Some patients with life-threatening conditions like a heart attack or stroke don’t have the luxury of waiting that long. So even with these therapies, many researchers are working towards developing non-matched cell products which would be available “off-the-shelf. In all of these cases, immune-suppressing drugs would be needed which have their own set of concerns due to dangerous side effects, like serious infection or cancer. So, before testing in humans begins, it’s important to be able to test various immune-suppressing drugs and doses in animals to understand how well a stem cell-based therapy will survive once transplanted.

But how do you test a human immune response to a human cell product in an animal? Believe it or not, researchers – some of whom are authors in this Cell Reports publication – developed “humanized mice” back in the 1980’s. These mice were engineered to lack their own immune system to allow the engraftment of a human immune system. Over the years, advances in this mouse experimental system has gotten it closer and closer to imitating a human immune system response to transplantation of mismatched cell product.

Close but no cigar, it seems.

The team in the current study performed a detailed analysis of the immune response in two different strains of humanized mice. Both groups of animals did not mount a normal, healthy immune response and so they could not completely reject transplants of various human stem cells or stem cell-based products. Now, if you didn’t know about the abnormally weak immune response in these humanized mice, you might conclude that very little immunosuppression would be needed for a given cell therapy to keep a patient’s immune system in check. But conclusively making that interpretation is not possible, according to team lead Dr. Joseph Wu, director of Stanford’s Cardiovascular Institute:

Joseph Wu. Photo: Steve Fisch/Stanford University

“In an ideal situation, these humanized mice would reject foreign stem cells just as a human patient would”, he said in a press release. “We could then test a variety of immunosuppressive drugs to learn which might work best in patients, or to screen for new drugs that could inhibit this rejection. We can’t do that with these animals.”

To uncover what was happening, the team took a step back and, rather than engrafting a human immune system into the mice, they engrafted immune cells from an unrelated mouse strain. Think of it as a mouse-ified mouse, if you will. When mouse iPSCs or human embryonic stem cells were transplanted into these mouse, the engrafted mouse immune system effectively rejected the stem cells. So, compared to these mice, some elements of the immune system in the humanized mouse strains are not quite capturing the necessary complexity to truly reproduce a human immune response.

More work will be needed to understand the underlying mechanisms of this difference. Other experiments in this study suggest that signals that inhibit the immune response may be elevated in the humanized mouse models. Dr. Leonard Shultz, a pioneer in the development of humanized mice at Jackson Laboratory and an author of this study, is optimistic about building a better model:

“The immune system is highly complex and there still remains much we need to learn. Each roadblock we identify will only serve as a landmark as we navigate the future. Already, we’ve seen recent improvements in humanized mouse models that foster enhancement of human immune function.”

Until then, the team urges other scientists to tread carefully when drawing conclusions from the humanized mice in use today.