Could revving up stem cells help senior citizens heal as fast as high school seniors?

All physicians, especially surgeons, sport medicine doctors, and military medical corps share a similar wish: to able to speed up the healing process for their patients’ incisions and injuries. Data published this week in Cell Reports may one day fulfill that wish. The study – reported by a Stanford University research team – pinpoints a single protein that revs up stem cells in the body, enabling them to repair tissue at a quicker rate.

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 5.37.38 PM

Muscle fibers (dark areas surrounding by green circles) are larger in mice injected with HGFA protein (right panel) compared to untreated mice (left panel), an indication of faster healing after muscle injury.
(Image: Cell Reports 19 (3) p. 479-486, fig 3C)

Most of the time, adult stem cells in the body keep to themselves and rarely divide. This calmness helps preserve this important, small pool of cells and avoids unnecessary mutations that may happen whenever DNA is copied during cell division.

To respond to injury, stem cells must be primed by dividing one time, which is a very slow process and can take several days. Once in this “alert” state, the stem cells are poised to start dividing much faster and help repair damaged tissue. The Stanford team, led by Dr. Thomas Rando, aimed to track down the signals that are responsible for this priming process with the hope of developing drugs that could help jump-start the healing process.

Super healing serum: it’s not just in video games
The team collected blood serum from mice two days after the animals had been subjected to a muscle injury (the mice were placed under anesthesia during the procedure and given pain medication afterwards). When that “injured” blood was injected into a different set of mice, their muscle stem cells became primed much faster than mice injected with “uninjured” blood.

“Clearly, blood from the injured animal contains a factor that alerts the stem cells,” said Rando in a press release. “We wanted to know, what is it in the blood that is doing this?”

 

A deeper examination of the priming process zeroed in on a muscle stem cell signal that is turned on by a protein in the blood called hepatocyte growth factor (HGF). So, it seemed likely that HGF was the protein that they had been looking for. But, to their surprise, there were no differences in the amount of HGF found in blood from injured and uninjured mice.

HGFA: the holy grail of healing?
It turns out, though, that HGF must first be chopped in two by an enzyme called HGFA to become active. When the team went back and examined the injured and uninjured blood, they found that it was HGFA which showed a difference: it was more active in the injured blood.

To show that HGFA was directly involved in stimulating tissue repair, the team injected mice with the enzyme two days before the muscle injury procedure. Twenty days post injury, the mice injected with HGFA had regenerated larger muscle fibers compared to untreated mice. Even more telling, nine days after the HGFA treatment, the mice had better recovery in terms of their wheel running activity compared to untreated mice.

To mimic tissue repair after a surgery incision, the team also looked at the impact of HGFA on skin wound healing. Like the muscle injury results, injecting animals with HGFA two days before creating a skin injury led to better wound healing compared to untreated mice. Even the hair that had been shaved at the surgical site grew back faster. First author Dr. Joseph Rodgers, now at USC, summed up the clinical implications of these results :

“Our research shows that by priming the body before an injury you can speed the process of tissue repair and recovery, similar to how a vaccine prepares the body to fight infection. We believe this could be a therapeutic approach to improve recovery in situations where injuries can be anticipated, such as surgery, combat or sports.”

Could we help senior citizens heal as fast as high school seniors?
Another application for this therapeutic approach may be for the elderly. Lots of things slow down when you get older including your body’s ability to heal itself. This observation sparks an intriguing question for Rando:

“Stem cell activity diminishes with advancing age, and older people heal more slowly and less effectively than younger people. Might it be possible to restore youthful healing by activating this [HGFA] pathway? We’d love to find out.”

I bet a lot of people would love for you to find out, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reprogramming the brain to make more dopamine

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

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

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

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

Bonus Blog Interview for World Parkinson’s Day

Ernest Arenas, Karolinska Institutet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIRM-funded team uncovers novel function for protein linked to autism and schizophrenia

Imagine you’ve just stopped your car at the top of the steepest street in San Francisco. Now, if want to stay at the top of the hill you’re going to need to keep your foot on the brakes. Let go and you’ll start rolling down. Fast.

Don’t step off the brake pedal! Photo: Wikipedia

Conceptually, similar decision points happen in human development. A brain cell, for instance, has the DNA instructions to become any cell in the body but must “keep the brakes on”, or repress, genes responsible for other cell types. Release the silencing of those genes and the brain cell’s properties will get pulled toward other fates.

That’s the subject of a CIRM-funded research study published today in Nature which reports on the identification of a new type of repressor protein which opens up a new understanding of how brain cells establish and keep their identity. That may not sound so exciting to our non-scientist readers but this discovery could lead to new therapy approaches for neurological disorders like autism, schizophrenia, major depression and low I.Q.

Skin cells to brain cells with just three genes
In previous experiments, this Stanford University research team led by Marius Wernig, showed it’s possible to convert a skin cell to a brain cell, or neuron, by adding just three genes to the cells, including one called Myt1l. The other two genes were known to act as master “on switches” that activate a cascade of genes responsible for making neuron-specific proteins. Myt1l also helped increase the efficiency of this direct reprogramming but it’s exact role in the process wasn’t clear.

Direct conversion of skin cell into a neuron.
Image: Wernig Lab, Stanford

A closer examination of Myt1l protein function revealed that instead of being an on switch for neuron-specific genes, it was actually an off switch for skin-specific genes. Now, there’s nothing unusual about the existence of a protein that represses gene activity to help determine cell identity. But up until now, these repressors were thought to be “lineage specific” meaning they specifically switched off genes of a specific cell type. For example, a well-studied repressor called REST affects cell fate by putting the brakes on only nerve-specific genes. The case of Myt1l was different.

Many but one
The researchers found that, in brain cells, Myt1l not only blocked the activation of skin-specific genes, it also shut down genes related to lung, cartilage, heart and other cells fates. The one set of genes that Mytl1 repressor did not appear to act on was neuron-specific genes. From these results a “many but one” pattern emerged. That is; it seems Myt1l helps drive and maintain a neuron cell fate by shutting off gene networks for many different cell identities except for neurons. It’s a novel way to regulate cell fate, as Wernig explained in a press release:

Marius Wernig
Photo: Steve Fisch

“The concept of an inverse master regulator, one that represses many different developmental programs rather than activating a single program, is a unique way to control neuronal cell identity, and a completely new paradigm as to how cells maintain their cell fate throughout an organism’s lifetime.”

To build a stronger case for Myt1l function, the team looked at the effect of blocking the protein in the developing mouse brain. Sure enough, lifting Myt1l repression lead to a decrease in the number of neurons in the brain. Wernig described the impact of also inhibiting Myt1l in mature neurons:

“When this protein is missing, neural cells get a little confused. They become less efficient at transmitting nerve signals and begin to express genes associated with other cell fates.”

Potential cures can be uncovered withfundamental lab research
It turns out that Myt1l mutations have been recently found in people with autism, schizophrenia, major depression and low I.Q. Based on their new insights, the author suggest that in adults, these disorders may be caused by a neuron’s inability to maintain its identity rather than by a more permanent abnormality that occurred during fetal brain development. This hypothesis presents the exciting possibility of developing therapies that could improve symptoms.

Don’t Be Afraid: High school stem cell researcher on inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students.

Shannon Larsuel

Shannon Larsuel is a high school senior at Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena California. Last summer, she participated in Stanford’s CIRM SPARK high school internship program and did stem cell research in a lab that studies leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Shannon is passionate about helping people through research and medicine and wants to become a pediatric oncologist. She is also dedicated to inspiring young girls to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers through a group called the Stem Sisterhood.

I spoke with Shannon to learn more about her involvement in the Stem Sisterhood and her experience in the CIRM SPARK program. Her interview is below.


Q: What is the Stem Sisterhood and how did you get involved?

SL: The Stem Sisterhood is a blog. But for me, it’s more than a blog. It’s a collective of women and scientists that are working to inspire other young scientists who are girls to get involved in the STEM field. I think it’s a wonderful idea because girls are underrepresented in STEM fields, and I think that this needs to change.

I got involved in the Stem Sisterhood because my friend Bridget Garrity is the founder. This past summer when I was at Stanford, I saw that she was doing research at Caltech. I reconnected with her and we started talking about our summer experiences working in labs. Then she asked me if I wanted to be involved in the Stem Sisterhood and be one of the faces on her website. She took an archival photo of Albert Einstein with a group of other scientists that’s on display at Caltech and recreated it with a bunch of young women who were involved in the STEM field. So I said yes to being in the photo, and I’m also in the midst of writing a blog post about my experience at Stanford in the SPARK program.

Members of The Stem Sisterhood

Q: What does the Stem Sisterhood do?

SL: Members of the team go to elementary schools and girl scout troop events and speak about science and STEM to the young girls. The goal is to inspire them to become interested in science and to teach them about different aspects of science that maybe are not that well known.

The Stem Sisterhood is based in Los Angeles. The founder Bridget wants to expand the group, but so far, she has only done local events because she is a senior in high school. The Stem Sisterhood has an Instagram account in addition to their blog. The blog is really interesting and features interviews with women who are in science and STEM careers.

Q: How has the Stem Sisterhood impacted your life?

SL: It has inspired me to reach out to younger girls more about science. It’s something that I am passionate about, and I’d like to pursue a career in the medical field. This group has given me an outlet to share that passion with others and to hopefully change the face of the STEM world.

Q: How did you find out about the CIRM SPARK program?

SL: I knew I wanted to do a science program over the summer, but I wasn’t sure what type. I didn’t know if I wanted to do research or be in a hospital. I googled science programs for high school seniors, and I saw the one at Stanford University. It looked interesting and Stanford is obviously a great institution. Coming from LA, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get in because the program had said it was mostly directed towards students living in the Bay Area. But I got in and I was thrilled. So that’s basically how I heard about it, because I googled and found it.

Q: What was your SPARK experience like?

SL: My program was incredible. I was a little bit nervous and scared going into it because I was the only high school student in my lab. As a high school junior going into senior year, I was worried about being the youngest, and I knew the least about the material that everyone in the lab was researching. But my fears were quickly put aside when I got to the lab. Everyone was kind and helpful, and they were always willing to answer my questions. Overall it was really amazing to have my first lab experience be at Stanford doing research that’s going to potentially change the world.

Shannon working in the lab at Stanford.

I was in a lab that was using stem cells to characterize a type of leukemia. The lab is hoping to study leukemia in vitro and in vivo and potentially create different treatments and cures from this research. It was so cool knowing that I was doing research that was potentially helping to save lives. I also learned how to work with stem cells which was really exciting. Stem cells are a new advancement in the science world, so being able to work with them was incredible to me. So many students will never have that opportunity, and being only 17 at the time, it was amazing that I was working with actual stem cells.

I also liked that the Stanford SPARK program allowed me to see other aspects of the medical world. We did outreach programs in the Stanford community and helped out at the blood drive where we recruited people for the bone marrow registry. I never really knew anything about the registry, but after learning about it, it really interested me. I actually signed up for it when I turned 18. We also met with patients and their families and heard their stories about how stem cell transplants changed their lives. That was so inspiring to me.

Going into the program, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist, but after the program, I knew for sure that’s what I wanted to do. I never thought about the research side of pediatric oncology, I only thought about the treatment of patients. So the SPARK program showed me what laboratory research is like, and now that’s something I want to incorporate into my career as a pediatric oncologist.

I learned so much in such a short time period. Through SPARK, I was also able to connect with so many incredible, inspired young people. The students in my program and I still have a group chat, and we text each other about college and what’s new with our lives. It’s nice knowing that there are so many great people out there who share my interests and who are going to change the world.

Stanford SPARK students.

Q: What was your favorite part of the SPARK program?

SL: Being in the lab every day was really incredible to me. It was my first research experience and I was in charge of a semi-independent project where I would do bacterial transformations on my own and run the gels. It was cool that I could do these experiments on my own. I also really loved the end of the summer poster session where all the students from the different SPARK programs came together to present their research. Being in the Stanford program, I only knew the Stanford students, but there were so many other awesome projects that the other SPARK students were doing. I really enjoyed being able to connect with those students as well and learn about their projects.

Q: Why do you want to pursue pediatric oncology?

SL: I’ve always been interested in the medical field but I’ve had a couple of experiences that really inspired me to become a doctor. My friend has a charity that raises money for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Every year, we deliver toys to the hospital. The first year I participated, we went to the hospital’s oncology unit and something about it stuck with me. There was one little boy who was getting his chemotherapy treatment. He was probably two years old and he really inspired to create more effective treatments for him and other children.

I also participated in the STEAM Inquiry program at my high school, where I spent two years reading tons of peer reviewed research on immunotherapy for pediatric cancer. Immunotherapy is something that really interests me. It makes sense that since cancer is usually caused by your body’s own mutations, we should be able to use the body’s immune system that normally regulates this to try and cure cancer. This program really inspired me to go into this field to learn more about how we can really tailor the immune system to fight cancer.

Q: What advice do you have for young girls interested in STEM.

SL: My advice is don’t be afraid. I think that sometimes girls are expected to be interested in less intellectual careers. This perception can strike fear into girls and make them think “I won’t be good enough. I’m not smart enough for this.” This kind of thinking is not good at all. So I would say don’t be afraid and be willing to put yourself out there. I know for me, sometimes it’s scary to try something and know you could fail. But that’s the best way to learn. Girls need to know that they are capable of doing anything and if they just try, they will be surprised with what they can do.

Three people left blind by Florida clinic’s unproven stem cell therapy

Unproven treatment

Unproven stem cell treatments endanger patients: Photo courtesy Healthline

The report makes for chilling reading. Three women, all suffering from macular degeneration – the leading cause of vision loss in the US – went to a Florida clinic hoping that a stem cell therapy would save their eyesight. Instead, it caused all three to go blind.

The study, in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, is a warning to all patients about the dangers of getting unproven, unapproved stem cell therapies.

In this case, the clinic took fat and blood from the patient, put the samples through a centrifuge to concentrate the stem cells, mixed them together and then injected them into the back of the woman’s eyes. In each case they injected this mixture into both eyes.

Irreparable harm

Within days the women, who ranged in age from 72 to 88, began to experience severe side effects including bleeding in the eye, detached retinas, and vision loss. The women got expert treatment at specialist eye centers to try and undo the damage done by the clinic, but it was too late. They are now blind with little hope for regaining their eyesight.

In a news release Thomas Alibini, one of the lead authors of the study, says clinics like this prey on vulnerable people:

“There’s a lot of hope for stem cells, and these types of clinics appeal to patients desperate for care who hope that stem cells are going to be the answer, but in this case these women participated in a clinical enterprise that was off-the-charts dangerous.”

Warning signs

So what went wrong? The researchers say this clinic’s approach raised a number of “red flags”:

  • First there is almost no evidence that the fat/blood stem cell combination the clinic used could help repair the photoreceptor cells in the eye that are attacked in macular degeneration.
  • The clinic charged the women $5,000 for the procedure. Usually in FDA-approved trials the clinical trial sponsor will cover the cost of the therapy being tested.
  • Both eyes were injected at the same time. Most clinical trials would only treat one eye at a time and allow up to 30 days between patients to ensure the approach was safe.
  • Even though the treatment was listed on the clinicaltrials.gov website there is no evidence that this was part of a clinical trial, and certainly not one approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates stem cell therapies.

As CIRM’s Abla Creasey told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Erin Allday, there is little evidence these fat stem cells are effective, or even safe, for eye conditions.

“There’s no doubt there are some stem cells in fat. As to whether they are the right cells to be put into the eye, that’s a different question. The misuse of stem cells in the wrong locations, using the wrong stem cells, is going to lead to bad outcomes.”

The study points out that not all projects listed on the Clinicaltrials.gov site are checked to make sure they are scientifically sound and have done the preclinical testing needed to reduce the likelihood they may endanger patients.

goldberg-jeffrey

Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg, a professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford and the co-author of the study, says this is a warning to all patients considering unproven stem cell therapies:

“There is a lot of very well-founded evidence for the positive potential of stem therapy for many human diseases, but there’s no excuse for not designing a trial properly and basing it on preclinical research.”

There are a number of resources available to people considering being part of a clinical trial including CIRM’s “So You Want to Participate in a Clinical Trial”  and the  website A Closer Look at Stem Cells , which is sponsored by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

CIRM is currently funding two clinical trials aimed at helping people with vision loss. One is Dr. Mark Humayun’s research on macular degeneration – the same disease these women had – and the other is Dr. Henry Klassen’s research into retinitis pigmentosa. Both these projects have been approved by the FDA showing they have done all the testing required to try and ensure they are safe in people.

In the past this blog has been a vocal critic of the FDA and the lengthy and cumbersome approval process for stem cell clinical trials. We have, and still do, advocate for a more efficient process. But this study is a powerful reminder that we need safeguards to protect patients, that any therapy being tested in people needs to have undergone rigorous testing to reduce the likelihood it may endanger them.

These three women paid $5,000 for their treatment. But the final cost was far greater. We never want to see that happen to anyone ever again.

Stem cells stories that caught our eye: switching cell ID to treat diabetes, AI predicts cell fate, stem cell ALS therapy for Canada

Treating diabetes by changing a cell’s identity. Stem cells are an ideal therapy strategy for treating type 1 diabetes. That’s because the disease is caused by the loss of a very specific cell type: the insulin-producing beta cell in the pancreas. So, several groups are developing treatments that aim to replace the lost cells by transplanting stem cell-derived beta cells grown in the lab. In fact, Viacyte is applying this approach in an ongoing CIRM-funded clinical trial.

In preliminary animal studies published late last week, a Stanford research team has shown another approach may be possible which generates beta cells inside the body instead of relying on cells grown in a petri dish. The CIRM-funded Cell Metabolism report focused on alpha cells, another cell type in pancreas which produces the hormone glucagon.

glucagon

Microscopy of islet cells, round clusters of cells found in the pancreas. The brown stained cells are glucagon-producing alpha cells. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After eating a meal, insulin is critical for getting blood sugar into your cells for their energy needs. But glucagon is needed to release stored up sugar, or glucose, into your blood when you haven’t eaten for a while. The research team, blocked two genes in mice that are critical for maintaining an alpha cell state. Seven weeks after inhibiting the activity of these genes, the researchers saw that many alpha cells had converted to beta cells, a process called direct reprogramming.

Does the same thing happen in humans? A study of cadaver donors who had been recently diagnosed with diabetes before their death suggests the answer is yes. An analysis of pancreatic tissue samples showed cells that produced both insulin and glucagon, and appeared to be in the process of converting from beta to alpha cells. Further genetic tests showed that diabetes donor cells had lost activity in the two genes that were blocked in the mouse studies.

It turns out that there’s naturally an excess of alpha cells so, as team lead Seung Kim mentioned in a press release, this strategy could pan out:

image-img-620-high

Seung Kim. Credit: Steve Fisch, Stanford University

“This indicates that it might be possible to use targeted methods to block these genes or the signals controlling them in the pancreatic islets of people with diabetes to enhance the proportion of alpha cells that convert into beta cells.”

Using computers to predict cell fate. Deep learning is a cutting-edge area of computer science that uses computer algorithms to perform tasks that border on artificial intelligence. From beating humans in a game of Go to self-driving car technology, deep learning has an exciting range of applications. Now, scientists at Helmholtz Zentrum München in Germany have used deep learning to predict the fate of cells.

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Using deep learning, computers can predict the fate of these blood stem cells.
Credit: Helmholtz Zentrum München.

The study, published this week in Nature Methods, focused on blood stem cells also called hematopoietic stem cells. These cells live in the bone marrow and give rise to all the different types of blood cells. This process can go awry and lead to deadly disorders like leukemia, so scientists are very interested in exquisitely understanding each step that a blood stem cell takes as it specializes into different cell types.

Researchers can figure out the fate of a blood stem cells by adding tags, which glow with various color, to the cell surface . Under a microscope these colors reveal the cells identity. But this method is always after the fact. There no way to look at a cell and predict what type of cell it is turning into. In this study, the team filmed the cells under a microscope as they transformed into different cell types. The deep learning algorithm processed the patterns in the cells and developed cell fate predictions. Now, compared to the typical method using the glowing tags, the researchers knew the eventual cell fates much sooner. The team lead, Carsten Marr, explained how this new technology could help their research:

“Since we now know which cells will develop in which way, we can isolate them earlier than before and examine how they differ at a molecular level. We want to use this information to understand how the choices are made for particular developmental traits.”

Stem cell therapy for ALS seeking approval in Canada. (Karen Ring) Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neuromuscular disease that kills off the nerve cells responsible for controlling muscle movement. Patients with ALS suffer from muscle weakness, difficulty in speaking, and eventually breathing. There is no cure for ALS and the average life expectancy after diagnosis is just 2 – 5 years. But companies are pursuing stem cell-based therapies in clinical trials as promising treatment options.

One company in particular, BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics based in the US and Israel, is testing a mesenchymal stem cell-based therapy called NurOwn in ALS patients in clinical trials. In their Phase 2 trials, they observed clinical improvements in slowing down the rate of disease progression following the stem cell treatment.

In a recent update from our friends at the Signals Blog, BrainStorm has announced that it is seeking regulatory approval of its NurOwn treatment for ALS patients in Canada. They will be working with the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) to apply for a special regulatory approval pathway with Health Canada, the Canadian government department responsible for national public health.

In a press release, BrainStorm CEO Chaim Lebovits, highlighted this new partnership and his company’s mission to gain regulatory approval for their ALS treatment:

“We are pleased to partner with CCRM as we continue our efforts to develop and make NurOwn available commercially to patients with ALS as quickly as possible. We look forward to discussing with Health Canada staff the results of our ALS clinical program to date, which we believe shows compelling evidence of safety and efficacy and may qualify for rapid review under Canada’s regulatory guidelines for drugs to treat serious or life-threatening conditions.”

Stacey Johnson who wrote the Signals Blog piece on this story explained that while BrainStorm is not starting a clinical trial for ALS in Canada, there will be significant benefits if its treatment is approved.

“If BrainStorm qualifies for this pathway and its market authorization request is successful, it is possible that NurOwn could be available for patients in Canada by early 2018.  True access to improved treatments for Canadian ALS patients would be a great outcome and something we are all hoping for.”

CIRM is also funding stem cell-based therapies in clinical trials for ALS. Just yesterday our Board awarded Cedars-Sinai $6.15 million dollars to conduct a Phase 1 trial for ALS patients that will use “cells called astrocytes that have been specially re-engineered to secrete proteins that can help repair and replace the cells damaged by the disease.” You can read more about this new trial in our latest news release.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: drug safety for heart cells, worms hijack plant stem cells & battling esophageal cancer

Devising a drug safety measuring stick in stem cell-derived heart muscle cells
One of the mantras in the drug development business is “fail early”. That’s because most of the costs of getting a therapy to market occur at the later stages when an experimental treatment is tested in clinical trials in people. So, it’s best for a company’s bottom line and, more importantly, for patient safety to figure out sooner rather than later if a therapy has dangerous toxic side effects.

Researchers at Stanford reported this week in Science Translational Medicine on a method they devised that could help weed out cancer drugs with toxic effects on the heart before the treatment is tested in people.

In the lab, the team grew beating heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, from induced pluripotent stem cells derived from both healthy volunteers and kidney cancer patients. A set of cancer drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors which are known to have a range of serious side effects on the heart, were added to the cells. The effect of the drugs on the heart cell function were measured with several different tests which the scientists combined into a single “safety index”.

roundup_wu

A single human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiomyocyte. Cells such as these were used to assess tyrosine kinase inhibitors for cardiotoxicity in a high-throughput fashion. Credit: Dr. Arun Sharma at Dr. Joseph Wu’s laboratory at Stanford University

They found that the drugs previously shown to have toxic effects on patients’ hearts had the worst safety index values in the current study. And because these cells were in a lab dish and not in a person’s heart, the team was able to carefully examine cell activity and discovered that the toxic effects of three drugs could be alleviated by also adding insulin to the cells.

As lead author Joseph Wu, director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, mentions in a press release, the development of this drug safety index could provide a powerful means to streamline the drug development process and make the drugs safer:

“This type of study represents a critical step forward from the usual process running from initial drug discovery and clinical trials in human patients. It will help pharmaceutical companies better focus their efforts on developing safer drugs, and it will provide patients more effective drugs with fewer side effects”

Worm feeds off of plants by taking control of their stem cells
In what sounds like a bizarre mashup of a vampire movie with a gardening show, a study reported this week pinpoints how worms infiltrate plants by commandeering the plants’ own stem cells. Cyst nematodes are microscopic roundworms that invade and kill soybean plants by sucking out their nutrients. This problem isn’t a trivial matter since nematodes wreak billions of dollars of damage to the world’s soybean crops each year. So, it’s not surprising that researchers want to understand how exactly these critters attack the plants.

nematode-feeding-site

A nematode, the oblong object on the left, activates the vascular stem cell pathway in the developing nematode feeding site on a plant root. Credit: Xiaoli Guo, University of Missouri

Previous studies by Melissa Goellner Mitchum, a professor at the University of Missouri, had shown that the nematodes release protein fragments, called peptides, near a plant’s roots that help divert the flow of plant nutrients to the worm.

“These parasites damage root systems by creating a unique feeding cell within the roots of their hosts and leeching nutrients out of the soybean plant. This can lead to stunting, wilting and yield loss for the plant,” Mitchum explained in a press release.

In the current PLOS Pathogens study, Mitchum’s team identified another peptide produced by the nematode that is identical to a plant peptide that instructs stem cells to form the plant equivalent of blood vessels. This devious mimicking of the plant peptides is what allows the nematode to trick the plant stem cells into building vessels that reroute the plants’ nutrients directly to the worm.

Mitchum described the big picture implications of this fascinating discovery:

“Understanding how plant-parasitic nematodes modulate host plants to their own benefit is a crucial step in helping to create pest-resistant plants. If we can block those peptides and the pathways nematodes use to overtake the soybean plant, then we can enhance resistance for this very valuable global food source.”

Finding vulnerabilities in treatment-resistant esophageal cancer stem cells

diagram_showing_internal_radiotherapy_for_cancer_of_the_oesophagus_cruk_162-svg

Illustration of radiation therapy for esophageal cancer.
Credit: Cancer Research UK

The incidence of esophageal cancer has increased more than any other disease over the past 30 years. And while some patients respond well to chemotherapy and radiation treatment, most do not because the cancer becomes resistant to these treatments.

Focusing on cancer stem cells, researchers at Trinity College Dublin have identified an approach that may overcome treatment resistance.

Within tumors are thought to lie cancer stem cells that, just like stem cells, have the ability to multiply indefinitely. Even though they make up a small portion of a tumor, in some patients the cancer stem cells evade the initial rounds of treatment and are responsible for the return of the cancer which is often more aggressive. Currently, there’s no effective way to figure out how well a patient with esophageal cancer will response to treatment.

In the current study published in Oncotarget, the researchers found that a genetic molecule called miR-17 was much less abundant in the esophageal cancer stem cells. In fact, the cancer stem cells with the lowest levels of miR-17, were the most resistant to radiation therapy. The researchers went on to show that adding back miR-17 to the highly resistant cells made them sensitive again to the radiation. Niamh Lynam-Lennon, the study’s first author, explained in a press release that these results could have direct clinical applications:

“Going forward, we could use synthetic miR-17 as an addition to radiotherapy to enhance its effectiveness in patients. This is a real possibility as a number of other synthetic miR-molecules are currently in clinical trials for treating other diseases.”

Curing the Incurable through Definitive Medicine

“Curing the Incurable”. That was the theme for the first annual Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine (CDCM) Symposium held last week at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California.

The CDCM is a joint initiative amongst Stanford Healthcare, Stanford Children’s Health and the Stanford School of Medicine. Its mission is to foster an environment that accelerates the development and translation of cell and gene therapies into clinical trials.

The research symposium focused on “the exciting first-in-human cell and gene therapies currently under development at Stanford in bone marrow, skin, cardiac, neural, pancreatic and neoplastic diseases.” These talks were organized into four different sessions: cell therapies for neurological disorders, stem cell-derived tissue replacement therapies, genome-edited cell therapies and anti-cancer cell-based therapies.

A few of the symposium speakers are CIRM-funded grantees, and we’ll briefly touch on their talks below.

Targeting cancer

The keynote speaker was Irv Weissman, who talked about hematopoietic or blood-forming stem cells and their value as a cell therapy for patients with blood disorders and cancer. One of the projects he discussed is a molecule called CD47 that is found on the surface of cancer cells. He explained that CD47 appears on all types of cancer cells more abundantly than on normal cells and is a promising therapeutic target for cancer.

Irv Weissman

Irv Weissman

“CD47 is the first gene whose overexpression is common to all cancer. We know it’s molecular mechanism from which we can develop targeted therapies. This would be impossible without collaborations between clinicians and scientists.”

 

At the end of his talk, Weissman acknowledged the importance of CIRM’s funding for advancing an antibody therapeutic targeting CD47 into a clinical trial for solid cancer tumors. He said CIRM’s existence is essential because it “funds [stem cell-based] research through the [financial] valley of death.” He further explained that CIRM is the only funding entity that takes basic stem cell research all the way through the clinical pipeline into a therapy.

Improving bone marrow transplants

judith shizuru

Judith Shizuru

Next, we heard a talk from Judith Shizuru on ways to improve current bone-marrow transplantation techniques. She explained how this form of stem cell transplant is “the most powerful form of cell therapy out there, for cancers or deficiencies in blood formation.” Inducing immune system tolerance, improving organ transplant outcomes in patients, and treating autoimmune diseases are all applications of bone marrow transplants. But this technique also carries with it toxic and potentially deadly side effects, including weakening of the immune system and graft vs host disease.

Shizuru talked about her team’s goal of improving the engraftment, or survival and integration, of bone marrow stem cells after transplantation. They are using an antibody against a molecule called CD117 which sits on the surface of blood stem cells and acts as an elimination signal. By blocking CD117 with an antibody, they improved the engraftment of bone marrow stem cells in mice and also removed the need for chemotherapy treatment, which is used to kill off bone marrow stem cells in the host. Shizuru is now testing her antibody therapy in a CIRM-funded clinical trial in humans and mentioned that this therapy has the potential to treat a wide variety of diseases such as sickle cell anemia, leukemias, and multiple sclerosis.

Tackling stroke and heart disease

img_1327We also heard from two CIRM-funded professors working on cell-based therapies for stroke and heart disease. Gary Steinberg’s team is using human neural progenitor cells, which develop into cells of the brain and spinal cord, to treat patients who’ve suffered from stroke. A stroke cuts off the blood supply to the brain, causing the death of brain cells and consequently the loss of function of different parts of the body.  He showed emotional videos of stroke patients whose function and speech dramatically improved following the stem cell transplant. One of these patients was Sonia Olea, a young woman in her 30’s who lost the ability to use most of her right side following her stroke. You can read about her inspiring recover post stem cell transplant in our Stories of Hope.

Dr. Joe Wu. (Image Source: Sean Culligan/OZY)

Dr. Joe Wu. (Image Source: Sean Culligan/OZY)

Joe Wu followed with a talk on adult stem cell therapies for heart disease. His work, which is funded by a CIRM disease team grant, involves making heart cells called cardiomyocytes from human embryonic stem cells and transplanting these cells into patient with end stage heart failure to improve heart function. His team’s work has advanced to the point where Wu said they are planning to file for an investigational new drug (IND) application with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in six months. This is the crucial next step before a treatment can be tested in clinical trials. Joe ended his talk by making an important statement about expectations on how long it will take before stem cell treatments are available to patients.

He said, “Time changes everything. It [stem cell research] takes time. There is a lot of promise for the future of stem cell therapy.”

Life after SPARK: CIRM high school intern gets prestigious scholarship to Stanford

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students.

Ranya Odeh

Ranya Odeh

Meet Ranya Odeh. She is a senior at Sheldon high school in Elk Grove, California, and a 2016 CIRM SPARK intern. The SPARK program provides stem cell research internships to underprivileged high school students at leading research institutes in California.

This past summer, Ranya worked in Dr. Jan Nolta’s lab at UC Davis improving methods that turn mesenchymal stem cells into bone and fat cells. During her internship, Ranya did an excellent job of documenting her journey in the lab on Instagram and received a social media prize for her efforts.

Ranya is now a senior in high school and was recently accepted into Stanford University through the prestigious QuestBridge scholarship program. She credits the CIRM SPARK internship as one of the main reasons why she was awarded this scholarship, which will pay for all four years of her college.

I reached out to Ranya after I heard about her exciting news and asked her to share her story so that other high school students could learn from her experience and be inspired by her efforts.


How did you learn about the CIRM SPARK program?

At my high school, one of our assignments is to build a website for the Teen Biotech Challenge (TBC) program at UC Davis. I was a sophomore my first year in the program, and I didn’t feel passionate about my project and website. The year after, I saw that some of my friends had done the CIRM SPARK internship after they participated in the TBC program. They posted pictures about their internship on Instagram, and it looked like a really fun and interesting thing to do. So I decided to build another website (one that I was more excited about) in my junior year on synthetic biology. Then I entered my website in the TBC and got first prize in the Nanobiotechnology field. Because I was one of the winners, I got the SPARK internship.

What did you enjoy most about your SPARK experience?

For me, it was seeing that researchers aren’t just scientists in white lab coats. The Nolta lab (where I did my SPARK internship) had a lot of personality that I wasn’t really expecting. Working with stem cells was so cool but it was also nice to see at the same time that people in the lab would joke around and pull pranks on each other. It made me feel that if I wanted to have a future in research, which I do, it wouldn’t be doing all work all the time.

What was it like to do research for the first time?

Ranya taking care of her stem cells!

Ranya taking care of her stem cells!

The SPARK internship was my first introduction to research. During my first experiment, I remember I was changing media and I thought that I was throwing my cells away by mistake. So I freaked out, but then my mentor told me that I hadn’t and everything was ok. That was still a big deal and I learned a lesson to ask more questions and pay more attention to what I was doing.

Did the SPARK program help you when you applied to college?

Yes, I definitely feel like it did. I came into the internship wanting to be a pharmacist. But my research experience working with stem cells made me want to change my career path. Now I’m looking into a bioengineering degree, which has a research aspect to it and I’m excited for that. Having the SPARK internship on my college application definitely helped me out. I also got to have a letter of recommendation from Dr. Nolta, which I think played a big part as well.

Tell us about the scholarship you received!

I got the QuestBridge scholarship, which is a college match scholarship for low income, high achieving students. I found out about this program because my career counselor gave me a brochure. It’s actually a two-part scholarship. The first part was during my junior year of high school and that one didn’t involve a college acceptance. It was an award that included essay coaching and a conference that told you about the next step of the scholarship.

The second part during my senior year was called the national college match scholarship. It’s an application on its own that is basically like a college application. I submitted it and got selected as a finalist. After I was selected, they have partner colleges that offer full scholarships. You rank your choice of colleges and apply to them separately with a common application. If any of those colleges want to match you and agree to pay for all four years of your college, then you will get matched to your top choice. There’s a possibility that more than one college would want to match you, but you will only get matched with the one that you rank the highest. That was Stanford for me, and I am very happy about that.

Why did you pick Stanford as your top choice?

It’s the closest university to where I grew up that is very prestigious. It was also one of the only colleges I’ve visited. When I was walking around on campus, I felt I could see myself there as a student and with the Stanford community. Also, it will be really nice to be close to my family.

What do you do in your free time?

I don’t have a lot of free time because I’m in Academic Decathalon and I spend most of my time doing that. When I do have free time, I like to watch Netflix, blogs on YouTube, and I try to go to the gym [laughs].

Did you enjoy posting about your SPARK internship on Instagram?

I had a lot of fun posting pictures of me in the lab on Instagram. It was also nice during the summer to see other SPARK students in different programs talk about the same things. We shared jokes about micropipettes and culturing stem cells. It was really cool to see that you’re not the only one posting nerdy science pictures. I also felt a part of a larger community outside of the SPARK program. Even people at my school were seeing and commenting on what I was doing.

UC Davis CIRM SPARK program 2016

UC Davis CIRM SPARK program 2016

I also liked that I got feedback about what I was doing in the lab from other SPARK students. When I posted pictures during my internship, I talked about working with mesenchymal stem cells. Because we all post to the same #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag, I saw students from CalTech commenting that they worked with those stem cells too. That motivated me to work harder and accomplish more in my project. Instagram also helped me with my college application process. I saw that there were other students in the same position as me that were feeling stressed out. We also gave each other feedback on college essays and having advice about what I was doing really helped me out.

Do you think it’s important for students to be on social media?

Yes, I think it’s important with boundaries of course. There are probably some people who are on social media too often, and you should have a balance. But it’s nice to see what other students are doing to prepare for college and to let loose and catch up with your friends.

What advice would you give to younger high school students about pursuing science?

I feel like students can’t expect things to be brought to them. If they are interested in science, they need to take the initiative to find something that they are going to want to do. The CIRM internship was brought to my attention. But I have friends that were interested in medicine and they found their own internships and ways to learn more about what they wanted to do. So my advice is to take initiative and not be scared of rejection, because if you’re scared of rejection you’re not going to do anything.

To hear more about Ranya’s SPARK internship experience, read her blog “Here’s what you missed this summer on the show coats.” You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter. For more information about the CIRM SPARK internship program, please visit the CIRM website.


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Stem Cell Profiles in Courage: Karl’s Fight with Cancer

Karl Trede

Karl Trede

When I think of a pioneer I have an image in my head of people heading west across the Americans plains in the 18th century, riding in a covered wagon pulled by weary oxen.

Karl Trede doesn’t fit that image at all. He is a trim, elegant man who has a ready smile and a fondness for Hawaiian shirts. But he is no less a pioneer for all that. That’s why we profiled him in our 2016 Annual Report.

In 2006 Karl was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. He underwent surgery to remove his vocal chords and thought he had beaten the cancer. A few years later, it came back. That was when Karl became the first person ever treated in a CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a new anti-tumor therapy targeting cancer stem cells that so far has helped hold the disease at bay.

Here is Karl’s story, in his own words:

“I had some follow-up tests and those showed spots in my lungs. Over the course of several years, they saw those spots grow, and we knew the cancer had spread to my lungs. I went to Stanford and was told there was no effective treatment for it, fortunately it was slow growing.

Then one day they said we have a new clinical trial we’re going to start would you be interested in being part of it.

I don’t believe I knew at the time that I was going to be the first one in the trial [now that’s what I call a pioneer] but I thought I’d give it a whirl and I said ‘Sure’. I wasn’t real concerned about being the first in a trial never tested in people before. I figured I was going to have to go someday so I guess if I was the first person and something really went wrong then they’d definitely learn something; so, to me, that was kind of worth my time.

Fortunately, I lasted 13 months, 72 treatments with absolutely no side effects. I consider myself really lucky to have been a part of it.

It was an experience for me, it was eye opening. I got an IV infusion, and the whole process was 4 hours once a week.

Dr. Sikic (the Stanford doctor who oversees the clinical trial) made it a practice of staying in the room with me when I was getting my treatments because they’d never tried it in people, they’d tested it in mice, but hadn’t tested it in people and wanted to make sure they were safe and nothing bad happened.

The main goals of the trial were to define what the side effects were and what the right dose is and they got both of those. So I feel privileged to have been a part of this.

My wife and I (Vita) have four boys. They’re spread out now – two in the San Francisco Bay Area, one in Oregon and one in Nevada. But we like to get together a few times a year. They’re all good cooks, so when we have a family get together there’s a lot of cooking involved.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, in 2015, the boys decided they wanted to have a rib cook-off for up to around 30 people and I can proudly say that I kicked their ass on the rib cook-off. I have an electric cooker and I just cook ‘em slow and long. I do a cranberry sauce, just some home made bbq sauces

I’m a beef guy, I love a good steak, a good ribeye or prime rib, I make a pretty mean Oso bucco, I make a good spaghetti sauce, baked chicken with an asparagus mousse that is pretty good.

I just consider myself a lucky guy.”

Karl Trede with CIRM President Randy Mills at the 2016 December Board meeting.

Karl Trede with CIRM President Randy Mills at the 2016 December Board meeting.


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