Stem Cell Roundup: The brain & obesity; iPSCs & sex chromosomes; modeling mental illness

Stem Cell Image of the Week:
Obesity-in-a-dish reveals mutations and abnormal function in nerve cells

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Image shows two types of hypothalamic neurons (in magenta and cyan) that were derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells.
Credit: Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute

Our stem cell image of the week looks like the work of a pre-historic cave dweller who got their hands on some DayGlo paint. But, in fact, it’s a fluorescence microscopy image of stem cell-derived brain cells from the lab of Dhruv Sareen, PhD, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Sareen’s team is investigating the role of the brain in obesity. Since the brain is a not readily accessible organ, the team reprogrammed skin and blood cell samples from severely obese and normal weight individuals into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These iPSCs were then matured into nerve cells found in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates hunger and other functions.

A comparative analysis showed that the nerve cells derived from the obese individuals had several genetic mutations and had an abnormal response to hormones that play a role in telling our brains that we are hungry or full. The Cedars-Sinai team is excited to use this obesity-in-a-dish system to further explore the underlying cellular changes that lead to excessive weight gain. Ultimately, these studies may reveal ways to combat the ever-growing obesity epidemic, as Dr. Sareen states in a press release:

“We are paving the way for personalized medicine, in which drugs could be customized for obese patients with different genetic backgrounds and disease statuses.”

The study was published in Cell Stem Cell

Differences found in stem cells derived from male vs female.

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Microscope picture of a colony of iPS cells. Credit: Vincent Pasque

Scientists at UCLA and KU Leuven University in Belgium carried out a study to better understand the molecular mechanisms that control the process of reprogramming adult cells back into the embryonic stem cell-like state of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Previous studies have shown that female vs male embryonic stem cells have different patterns of gene regulation. So, in the current study, male and female cells were analyzed side-by-side during the reprogramming process.  First author Victor Pasquale explained in a press release that the underlying differences stemmed from the sex chromosomes:

In a normal situation, one of the two X chromosomes in female cells is inactive. But when these cells are reprogrammed into iPS cells, the inactive X becomes active. So, the female iPS cells now have two active X chromosomes, while males have only one. Our results show that studying male and female cells separately is key to a better understanding of how iPS cells are made. And we really need to understand the process if we want to create better disease models and to help the millions of patients waiting for more effective treatments.”

The CIRM-funded study was published in Stem Cell Reports.

Using mini-brains and CRISPR to study genetic linkage of schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder.

If you haven’t already picked up on a common thread in this week’s stories, this last entry should make it apparent: iPSC cells are the go-to method to gain insight in the underlying mechanisms of a wide range of biology topics. In this case, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School were interested in understanding how mutations in a gene called DISC1 were linked to several mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression. While much has been gleaned from animal models, there’s limited knowledge of how DISC1 affects the development of the human brain.

The team used human iPSCs to grow cerebral organoids, also called mini-brains, which are three-dimensional balls of cells that mimic particular parts of the brain’s anatomy. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology – another very popular research tool – the team introduced DISC1 mutations found in families suffering from these mental disorders.

Compared to cells with normal copies of the DISC1 gene, the mutant organoids showed abnormal structure and excessive cell signaling. When an inhibitor of that cell signaling was added to the growing mutant organoids, the irregular structures did not develop.

These studies using human cells provide an important system for gaining a better understanding of, and potentially treating, mental illnesses that victimize generations of families.

The study was published in Translation Psychiatry and picked up by Eureka Alert.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: functioning liver tissue, making new bone, stem cells and mental health

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

Functioning liver tissue. Scientists are looking to stem cells as a potential alternative treatment to liver transplantation for patients with end-stage liver disease. Efforts are still in their early stages but a study published this week in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, shows how a CIRM-funded team at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) successfully generated partially functional liver tissue from mouse and human stem cells.

Biodegradable scaffold (left) and human tissue-engineered liver (right) (Photo courtesy of The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles)

Biodegradable scaffold (left) and human tissue-engineered liver (right) (Photo courtesy of The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles)

The lab had previously developed a protocol to make intestinal organoids from mouse and human stem cells. They were able to tweak the protocol to generate what they called liver organoid units and transplanted the tissue-engineered livers into mice. The transplants developed cells and structures found in normal healthy livers, but their organization was different – something that the authors said they would address in future experiments.

Impressively, when the tissue-engineered liver was transplanted into mice with liver failure, the transplants had some liver function and the liver cells in these transplants were able to grow and regenerate like in normal livers.

In a USC press release, Dr. Kasper Wang from CHLA and the Keck school of medicine at USC commented:

“A cellular therapy for liver disease would be a game-changer for many patients, particularly children with metabolic disorders. By demonstrating the ability to generate hepatocytes comparable to those in native liver, and to show that these cells are functional and proliferative, we’ve moved one step closer to that goal.”

 

Making new bone. Next up is a story about making new bone from stem cells. A group at UC San Diego published a study this week in the journal Science Advances detailing a new way to make bone forming cells called osteoblasts from human pluripotent stem cells.

Stem cell-derived osteoblasts (bone cells). Image credit Varghese lab/UCSD.

Stem cell-derived osteoblasts (bone cells). Image credit Varghese lab/UCSD.

One way that scientists can turn pluripotent stem cells into mature cells like bone is to culture the stem cells in a growth medium supplemented with small molecules that can influence the fate of the stem cells. The group discovered that by adding a single molecule called adenosine to the growth medium, the stem cells turned into osteoblasts that developed vascularized bone tissue.

When they transplanted the stem cell-derived osteoblasts into mice with bone defects, the transplanted cells developed new bone tissue and importantly didn’t develop tumors.

 In a UC newsroom release, senior author on the study and UC San Diego Bioengineering Professor Shyni Varghese concluded:

“It’s amazing that a single molecule can direct stem cell fate. We don’t need to use a cocktail of small molecules, growth factors or other supplements to create a population of bone cells from human pluripotent stem cells like induced pluripotent stem cells.”

 

Stem cells and mental health. Brad Fikes from the San Diego Union Tribune wrote a great article on a new academic-industry partnership whose goal is to use human stem cells to find new drugs for mental disorders. The project is funded by a $15.4 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Academic scientists, including Rusty Gage from the Salk Institute and Hongjun Song from Johns Hopkins University, are collaborating with pharmaceutical company Janssen and Cellular Dynamics International to develop induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with mental disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The scientists will generate brain cells from the iPSCs and then work with the companies to test for potential drugs that could be used to treat these disorders.

In the article, Fred Gage explained that the goal of this project will be used to help patients rather than generate data points:

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

“Gage said the stem cell project is focused on getting results that make a difference to patients, not simply piling up research information. Being able to replicate results is critical; Gage said. Recent studies have found that many research findings of potential therapies don’t hold up in clinical testing. This is not only frustrating to patients, but failed clinical trials are expensive, and must be paid for with successful drugs.”

“The future of this will require more patients, replication between labs, and standardization of the procedures used.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: fashionable stem cells, eliminating HIV, cellular Trojan horse fights cancer

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

Stem cell fashion for a cause. Science and art are not mutually exclusive subjects. I know plenty of scientists who are talented painters or designers. But you don’t often see science being displayed in an artistic way or art being used to help explain complex scientific topics. I think that in the future, this will change as both subjects have a lot to offer one another.

Stem cell ties are in fashion!

Stem cell ties are in fashion!

Take this story from the University of Michigan for instance. Designer Dominic Pangborn has joined forces with the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at the University of Michigan (UOM) to design fashionable scarves and ties featuring beautiful pictures of stem cells. The goal of the Prechter Fund scarf and tie project is to raise awareness for mental health research.

The scarves and ties feature pictures of brain stem cells taken by UOM scientists who are studying them to understand the mechanisms behind bipolar disorder. These stem cells were generated from induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells that were derived from donated skin biopsies of patients with bipolar disease. Studying these diseased brain cells in a dish revealed that the nerve cells from bipolar patients were misbehaving, sending out electrical signals more frequently compared to healthy nerve cells.

Dr. Melvin McInnis, the Prechter Fund research director, explained:

“By understanding the causes of bipolar disorder, we will be able to develop new treatments for the illness and most importantly, we’ll be able to prevent destructive mood episodes. Our ultimate goal is to allow people to live happy, normal lives.”

Pangborn is passionate about using art to reflect an important cause.

“I decided to add butterflies to the design because they signify metamorphosis. Our society is finally at a point where mental illness is openly talked about and research is taking a turn for the better.”

He plans to release his collection in time for National Mental Health Awareness month in May. All proceeds will go to the Prechter bipolar research projects at UOM.

Dr. Melvin McInnis, left, and Dominic Pangborn in the Pangborn Design Store in Ann Arbor. (UOM)

Dr. Melvin McInnis, left, and Dominic Pangborn in the Pangborn Design Store in Ann Arbor. (UOM)

New stem cell therapy could eliminate HIV for good

The stem cells therapies being developed to cure HIV are looking more promising every day. A few are already being tested in clinical trials, and CIRM is funding two of them (you can read more about them here). News came out this week about a new trial conducted at the City of Hope’s CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. They reported in a news release that they’ve treated their first patient. His name is Aaron Kim, and he’s had HIV since he was born. In 1983, he and his twin sister were born prematurely and due to a complication, Aaron had to get a blood transfusion that unfortunately gave him HIV.

Aaron Kim with nurse. (City of Hope)

Aaron Kim with nurse. (City of Hope)

Aaron thought he would live with this disease the rest of his life, but now he has a chance at being cured. In March, Aaron received a transplant of his own bone marrow stem cells that were genetically engineered to have a modified version of the CCR5 gene that makes his cells resistant to HIV infection. CCR5 is a is a protein receptor on the surface of blood cells that acts as a gateway for HIV entry. The hope is that his reengineered stem cells will populate his immune system with HIV-resistant cells that can eliminate the virus completely.

Dr. John Zaia who is the director the the City of Hope Alpha Clinic explained,

“The stem cell therapy Aaron received is one of more than 20 cure strategies for HIV. It may not cure him, but our goal is to reduce or even halt Aaron’s reliance on HIV drugs, potentially eliminating the virus completely.”

My favorite part of this story was that it acknowledged how importance it is for patients to participate in clinical trials testing promising new stem cell therapies where the outcomes aren’t always known. Brave patients such as Aaron make it possible for scientists to make progress and develop better and safer treatments for patients in the future.

Dr. Zaia commented, “It’s a wonderful and generous humanitarian gesture on Aaron’s part to participate in this trial.”

Stem cell Trojan horse fights cancer

Chemotherapy is great at killing cancer cells, but unfortunately, it’s also great at killing healthy cells too. To combat this issue, scientists are developing new delivery methods that can bring high doses of chemotherapy drugs to the cancer tumors and minimize exposure of healthy tissues.

Mesenchymal stem cells loaded with drug-containing microparticles. Credit: Jeff Karp and Oren Levy, Brigham and Women's Hospital

Mesenchymal stem cells loaded with drug-containing microparticles.
Credit: Jeff Karp and Oren Levy, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

A study published this week in Biomaterials, describes a new drug delivery method that has the potential to be an effective treatment for prostate cancer. Researchers from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins University developed a drug delivery platform using mesenchymal stem cells. They packaged a non-active, prodrug version of a potent prostate cancer chemotherapy drug into microparticles that they loaded into MSCs. When the MSCs and prostate cancer cells were cultured together in a dish, the MSCs released their prodrug cargo, which was then internalized by the prostate cancer cells. The prodrug was then metabolized into its active, cancer-killing form and was very effective at killing the cancer cells.

In a news release picked up by Science Daily, one of the lead scientists on the study, Dr. Oren Levy, further explained the stem cell Trojan horse concept:

“Mesenchymal stem cells represent a potential vehicle that can be engineered to seek out tumors. Loading those cells with a potent chemotherapeutic drug is a promising cell-based Trojan horse approach to deliver drugs to sites of cancer.”

If all goes well, the teams plan to develop different versions of their stem cell-based drug delivery method that target different cancers and other diseases.

Bipolar Disorder-in-a-Dish: Game On for Finding New Drugs

Amy Winehouse: a tremendous talent lost to bipolar disorder. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Amy Winehouse: a tremendous talent lost to bipolar disorder. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The tragic path of biopolar disorder
Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Virginia Woolf – the world lost their creativity too soon. Each took their own life or succumbed to substance abuse, most likely due to their struggles with bipolar disorder. Also called manic depression, bipolar disorder is one of the most severe types of mental illness. It’s characterized by episodes of extreme manic behavior preceded or followed by bouts of devastating depression. Bipolar disorder is thought to affect 3-5% of the world’s population and, if left untreated, has a 15% risk of death by suicide.

Lithium is the most effective treatment for long term management of the disorder though the drug’s mechanism of action isn’t well understood. Sadly, many people who are bipolar don’t respond to lithium and instead must wade through a complex mix of drugs that attempts to tackle the varied symptoms.

Imaging studies suggest unique changes in the bipolar brain and studies of twins show a genetic component but scientists are far from unraveling the direct causes of bipolar disorder. Now, exciting research at the Salk Institute reported in Nature provides a powerful new tool for not only understanding the disease at a cellular level but also finding new drug treatments.

“The cells of these patients really are different”
Using induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology, the Salk team successfully grew nerve cells, or neurons, in the lab from skin samples of six people with bipolar disorder as well as from healthy individuals. When compared to the healthy neurons, the researchers saw a higher sensitivity of the bipolar neuron to stimuli. Jerome Mertens, a postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of the study, explained the result further in a Salk Institute press release:

“Neurons are normally activated by a stimuli and respond. The cells we have from all six patients are much more sensitive in that you don’t need to activate them very strongly to see a response.”

And Salk professor Rusty Gage, a CIRM grantee and the senior scientist of the study, points out that these cells represent a game-changer for the study of bipolar disorder:

“Researchers hadn’t all agreed that there was a cellular cause to bipolar disorder. So our study is important validation that the cells of these patients really are different.”

Lithium response in lab dish = lithium response in patients
And now comes the really exciting part. The team next studied the effects of lithium on these six bipolar patients’ cells. Three of the patients were responders to lithium treatment while the other three were not helped by the drug. When grown in lithium, the cells from the lithium responders became less sensitive, you might even say less “manic”, to stimuli while the cells from the lithium non-responders remained hyperactive.

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Salk scientists discover cellular differences between brain cells from bipolar patients that respond to lithium and those that don’t. Neurons (white/red) from a subset of bipolar patients show changes in their electrical activity in response to lithium.Credit: Salk Institute

So the response of these “disease in a dish” cells to lithium corresponds perfectly with the lithium response in the patients. This result will undoubtedly propel the use of these iPSC-derived neurons to examine the causes of the diseases at a cellular and molecular level. Not only that but the cells should become a key resource for testing lithium alternatives that may help the portion of the bipolar population that doesn’t response to lithium.

In order words, this use of iPSC technology begins a new chapter in the effort to free sufferers from the life-long grip of bipolar disorder.

CIRM’s got skin in the game too
The incredible power of iPSCs to examine human disease like never before is not lost on the CIRM team. That’s why we’re so excited that our iPSC bank is now open for business. It’s a major effort by the agency to create a public stem cell bank developed from thousands of individuals. These cells will be available to scientists worldwide to better understand and to develop therapies for diseases of heart, lung and liver as well as neurodegenerative and childhood neurological disorders.

Related Links:
Seminar video: Carol Marchetto, Salk Institute staff scientist, discusses the study in greater detail