Stem Cell Roundup: watching brain cells in real time, building better heart cells, and the plot thickens on the adult neurogenesis debate

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week.

Watching brain cells in real time

This illustration depicts a new method that enables scientists to see an astrocyte (green) physically interacting with a neuronal synapse (red) in real time, and producing an optical signal (yellow). (Khakh Lab, UCLA Health)

Our stem cell photo of the week is brought to you by the Khakh lab at UCLA Health. The lab developed a new method that allows scientists to watch brain cells interact in real time. Using a technique called fluorescence resonance energy-transfer (FRET) microscopy, the team can visualize how astrocytes (key support cells in our central nervous system) and brain cells called neurons form connections in the mouse brain and how these connections are affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Baljit Khakh, the study’s first author, explained the importance of their findings in a news release:

“This new tool makes possible experiments that we have been wanting to perform for many years. For example, we can now observe how brain damage alters the way that astrocytes interact with neurons and develop strategies to address these changes.”

The study was published this week in the journal Neuron.


Turn up the power: How to build a better heart cell (Todd Dubnicoff)

For years now, researchers have had the know-how to reprogram a donor’s skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and then specialize them into heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes. The intervening years have focused on optimizing this method to accurately model the biology of the adult human heart as a means to test drug toxicity and ultimately develop therapies for heart disease. Reporting this week in Nature, scientists at Columbia University report an important step toward those goals.

The muscle contractions of a beating heart occur through natural electrical impulses generated by pacemaker cells. In the case of lab-grown cardiomyocytes, introducing mechanical and electrical stimulation is required to reliably generate these cells. In the current study, the research team showed that the timing and amount of stimulation is a critical aspect to the procedure.

The iPS-derived cardiomyocytes have formed heart tissue that closely mimics human heart functionality at over four weeks of maturation. Credit: Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic/Columbia University.

The team tested three scenarios on iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes (iPSC-CMs): no electrical stimulation for 3 weeks, constant stimulation for 3 weeks, and finally, two weeks of increasingly higher stimulation followed by a week of constant stimulation. This third setup mimics the changes that occur in a baby’s heart just before and just after birth.

These scenarios were tested in 12 day-old and 28 day-old iPSC-CMs. The results show that only the 12 day-old cells subjected to the increasing amounts of stimulation gave rise to fully mature heart muscle cells. On top of that, it only took four weeks to make those cells. Seila Selimovic, Ph.D., an expert at the National Institutes of Health who was not involved in the study, explained the importance of these findings in a press release:

“The resulting engineered tissue is truly unprecedented in its similarity to functioning human tissue. The ability to develop mature cardiac tissue in such a short time is an important step in moving us closer to having reliable human tissue models for drug testing.”

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-04-early-bioengineered-human-heart-cells.html#jCp


Yes we do, no we don’t. More confusion over growing new brain cells as we grow older (Kevin McCormack)

First we didn’t, then we did, then we didn’t again, now we do again. Or maybe we do again.

The debate over whether we are able to continue making new neurons as we get older took another twist this week. Scientists at Columbia University said their research shows we do make new neurons in our brain, even as we age.

This image shows what scientists say is a new neuron in the brain of an older human. A new study suggests that humans continue to make new neurons throughout their lives. (Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

In the study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the researchers examined the brains of 28 deceased donors aged 14 to 79. They found similar numbers of precursor and immature neurons in all the brains, suggesting we continue to develop new brain cells as we age.

This contrasts with a UCSF study published just last month which came to the opposite conclusion, that there was no evidence we make new brain cells as we age.

In an interview in the LA Times, Dr. Maura Boldrini, the lead author on the new study, says they looked at a whole section of the brain rather than the thin tissues slices the UCSF team used:

“In science, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If you can’t find something it doesn’t mean that it is not there 100%.”

Well, that resolves that debate. At least until the next study.

Stanford Scientist Sergiu Pasca Receives Prestigious Vilcek Prize for Stem Cell Research on Neuropsychiatric Disorders

Sergiu Pasca, Stanford University

Last month, we blogged about Stanford neuroscientist Sergiu Pasca and his interesting research using stem cells to model the human brain in 3D. This month we bring you an exciting update about Dr. Pasca and his work.

On February 1st, Pasca was awarded one of the 2018 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the important contributions made by immigrants to American arts and sciences.

Pasca was born in Romania and got his medical degree there before moving to the US to pursue research at Stanford University in 2009. He is now an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and has dedicated his lab’s research to understanding human brain development and neuropsychiatric disorders using 3D brain organoid cultures derived from pluripotent stem cells.

The Vilcek Foundation produced a fascinating video (below) featuring Pasca’s life journey and his current CIRM-funded research on Timothy Syndrome – a rare form of autism. In the video, Pasca describes how his lab’s insights into this rare psychiatric disorder will hopefully shed light on other neurological diseases. He shares his hope that his research will yield something that translates to the clinic.

The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science comes with a $50,000 cash award. Pasca along with the other prize winners will be honored at a gala event in New York City in April 2018.

You can read more about Pasca’s prize winning research on the Vilcek website and in past CIRM blogs below.


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Modeling the Human Brain in 3D

(Image from Pasca Lab, Stanford University)

Can you guess what the tiny white balls are in this photo? I’ll give you a hint, they represent the organ that you’re using right now to answer my question.

These are 3D brain organoids generated from human pluripotent stem cells growing in a culture dish. You can think of them as miniature models of the human brain, containing many of the brain’s various cell types, structures, and regions.

Scientists are using brain organoids to study the development of the human nervous system and also to model neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders. These structures allow scientists to dissect the inner workings of the brain – something they can’t do with living patients.

Brain-in-a-Dish

Dr. Sergiu Pasca is a professor at Stanford University who is using 3D cultures to understand human brain development. Pasca and his lab have previously published methods to make different types of brain organoids from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that recapitulate human brain developmental events in a dish.

Sergiu Pasca, Stanford University (Image credit: Steve Fisch)

My colleague, Todd Dubnicoff, blogged about Pasca’s research last year:

“Using brain tissue grown from patient-derived iPSCs, Dr. Sergiu Pasca and his team recreated the types of nerve cell circuits that form during the late stages of pregnancy in the fetal cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain that is responsible for functions including memory, language and emotion. With this system, they observed irregularities in the assembly of brain circuitry that provide new insights into the cellular and molecular causes of neuropsychiatric disorders like autism.”

Pasca generated brain organoids from the iPSCs of patients with a genetic disease called Timothy Syndrome – a condition that causes heart problems and some symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in children. By comparing the nerve cell circuits in patient versus healthy brain organoids, he observed a disruption in the migration of nerve cells in the organoids derived from Timothy Syndrome iPSCs.

“We’ve never been able to recapitulate these human-brain developmental events in a dish before,” said Pasca in a press release, “the process happens in the second half of pregnancy, so viewing it live is challenging. Our method lets us see the entire movie, not just snapshots.”

The Rise of 3D Brain Cultures

Pasca’s lab is just one of many that are working with 3D brain culture technologies to study human development and disease. These technologies are rising in popularity amongst scientists because they make it possible to study human brain tissue in normal and abnormal conditions. Brain organoids have also appeared in the mainstream news as novel tools to study how epidemics like the Zika virus outbreak affect the developing fetal brain (more here and here).

While these advances are exciting and promising, the field is still in its early stages and the 3D organoid models are far from perfect at representing the complex biology of the human brain.

Pasca addresses the progress and the hurdles of 3D brain cultures in a review article titled “The rise of three-dimensional brain cultures” published this week in the journal Nature. The article, describes in detail how pluripotent stem cells can assemble into structures that represent different regions of the human brain allowing scientists to observe how cells interact within neural circuits and how these circuits are disrupted by disease.

The review goes on to compare different approaches for creating 3D brain cultures (see figure below) and their different applications. For instance, scientists are culturing organoids on microchips (brains-on-a-chip) to model the blood-brain barrier – the membrane structure that protects the brain from circulating pathogens in the blood but also makes drug delivery to brain very challenging. Brain organoids are also being used to screen for new drugs and to model complex diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Human pluripotent stem cells, adult stem cells or cancer cells  can be used to derive microfluidics-based organs-on-a-chip (top), undirected organoids (middle), and region-specific brain organoids or organ spheroids (bottom). These 3D cultures can be manipulated with CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technologies, transplanted into animals or used for drug screening. (Pasca, Nature)

Pasca ends the review by identifying the major hurdles facing 3D brain culture technologies. He argues that “3D cultures only approximate the appearance and architecture of neural tissue” and that the cells and structures within these organoids are not always predictable. These issues can be address over time by enforcing quality control in how these 3D cultures are made and by using new biomaterials that enable the expansion and maturation of these cultures.

Nonetheless, Pasca believes that 3D brain cultures combined with advancing technologies to study them have “the potential to give rise to novel features for studying human brain development and disease.”

He concludes the review with a cautiously optimistic outlook:

“This is an exciting new field and as with many technologies, it may follow a ‘hype’ cycle in which we overestimate its effects in the short run and underestimate its effects in the long run. A better understanding of the complexity of this platform, and bringing interdisciplinary approaches will accelerate our progress up a ‘slope of enlightenment’ and into the ‘plateau of productivity’.”

3D brain culture from the Pasca Lab, Stanford University


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Pastor seems immune to the skepticism and naysayers.

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

Rhythmic brain circuits built from stem cells

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

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

Circuitoids: a neural network in a lab dish

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

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

pfaff-circutoid-cropped

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

Making neural networks dance to a different beat

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

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

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

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

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

Stories that caught our eye: stem cell transplants help put MS in remission; unlocking the cause of autism; and a day to discover what stem cells are all about

multiple-sclerosis

Motor neurons

Stem cell transplants help put MS in remission: A combination of high dose immunosuppressive therapy and transplant of a person’s own blood stem cells seems to be a powerful tool in helping people with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) go into sustained remission.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s own immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide variety of symptoms including overwhelming fatigue, blurred vision and mobility problems. RRMS is the most common form of MS, affecting up to 85 percent of people, and is characterized by attacks followed by periods of remission.

The HALT-MS trial, which was sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), took the patient’s own blood stem cells, gave the individual chemotherapy to deplete their immune system, then returned the blood stem cells to the patient. The stem cells created a new blood supply and seemed to help repair the immune system.

Five years after the treatment, most of the patients were still in remission, despite not taking any medications for MS. Some people even recovered some mobility or other capabilities that they had lost due to the disease.

In a news release, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIAID, said anything that holds the disease at bay and helps people avoid taking medications is important:

“These extended findings suggest that one-time treatment with HDIT/HCT may be substantially more effective than long-term treatment with the best available medications for people with a certain type of MS. These encouraging results support the development of a large, randomized trial to directly compare HDIT/HCT to standard of care for this often-debilitating disease.”

scripps-campus

Scripps Research Institute

Using stem cells to model brain development disorders. (Karen Ring) CIRM-funded scientists from the Scripps Research Institute are interested in understanding how the brain develops and what goes wrong to cause intellectual disabilities like Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disease that is a common cause of autism spectrum disorder.

Because studying developmental disorders in humans is very difficult, the Scripps team turned to stem cell models for answers. This week, in the journal Brain, they published a breakthrough in our understanding of the early stages of brain development. They took induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), made from cells from Fragile X syndrome patients, and turned these cells into brain cells called neurons in a cell culture dish.

They noticed an obvious difference between Fragile X patient iPSCs and healthy iPSCs: the patient stem cells took longer to develop into neurons, a result that suggests a similar delay in fetal brain development. The neurons from Fragile X patients also had difficulty forming synaptic connections, which are bridges that allow for information to pass from one neuron to another.

Scripps Research professor Jeanne Loring said that their findings could help to identify new drug therapies to treat Fragile X syndrome. She explained in a press release;

“We’re the first to see that these changes happen very early in brain development. This may be the only way we’ll be able to identify possible drug treatments to minimize the effects of the disorder.”

Looking ahead, Loring and her team will apply their stem cell model to other developmental diseases. She said, “Now we have the tools to ask the questions to advance people’s health.”

A Day to Discover What Stem Cells Are All about.  (Karen Ring) Everyone is familiar with the word stem cells, but do they really know what these cells are and what they are capable of? Scientists are finding creative ways to educate the public and students about the power of stem cells and stem cell research. A great example is the University of Southern California (USC), which is hosting a Stem Cell Day of Discovery to educate middle and high school students and their families about stem cell research.

The event is this Saturday at the USC Health Sciences Campus and will feature science talks, lab tours, hands-on experiments, stem cell lab video games, and a resource fair. It’s a wonderful opportunity for families to engage in science and also to expose young students to science in a fun and engaging way.

Interest in Stem Cell Day has been so high that the event has already sold out. But don’t worry, there will be another stem cell day next year. And for those of you who don’t live in Southern California, mark your calendars for the 2017 Stem Cell Awareness Day on Wednesday, October 11th. There will be stem cell education events all over California and in other parts of the country during that week in honor of this important day.

 

 

Seeing is believing: how some scientists – including two funded by CIRM – are working to help the blind see

retinitis pigmentosas_1

How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision – new stem cell research may help reverse that

“A pale hue”. For most of us that is a simple description, an observation about color. For Kristin Macdonald it’s a glimpse of the future. In some ways it’s a miracle. Kristin lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa (RP). For many years she was virtually blind. But now, thanks to a clinical trial funded by CIRM she is starting to see again.

Kristin’s story is one of several examples of restoring sight in an article entitled “Why There’s New Hope About Ending Blindness” in the latest issue of National Geographic.  The article explores different approaches to treating people who were either born without vision or lost their vision due to disease or injury.

Two of those stories feature research that CIRM has funded. One is the work that is helping Kristin. Retinitis pigmentosa is a relatively rare condition that destroys the photoreceptors at the back of the eye, the cells that actually allow us to sense light. The National Geographic piece highlights how a research team at the University of California, Irvine, led by Dr. Henry Klassen, has been working on a way to use stem cells to replace and repair the cells damaged by RP.

“Klassen has spent 30 years studying how to coax progenitor cells—former stem cells that have begun to move toward being specific cell types—into replacing or rehabilitating failed retinal cells. Having successfully used retinal progenitor cells to improve vision in mice, rats, cats, dogs, and pigs, he’s testing a similar treatment in people with advanced retinitis pigmentosa.”

We recently blogged about this work and the fact that this team just passed it’s first major milestone – – showing that in the first nine patients treated none experienced any serious side effects. A Phase 1 clinical trial like this is designed to test for safety, so it usually involves the use of relatively small numbers of cells. The fact that some of those treated, like Kristin, are showing signs of improvement in their vision is quite encouraging. We will be following this work very closely and reporting new results as soon as they are available.

The other CIRM-supported research featured in the article is led by what the writer calls “an eyeball dream team” featuring University of Southern California’s Dr. Mark Humayun, described as “a courteous, efficient, impeccably besuited man.” And it’s true, he is.

The team is developing a stem cell device to help treat age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

“He and his fellow principal investigator, University of California, Santa Barbara stem cell biologist Dennis Clegg, call it simply a patch. That patch’s chassis, made of the same stuff used to coat wiring for pacemakers and neural implants, is wafer thin, bottle shaped, and the size of a fat grain of rice. Onto this speck Clegg distributes 120,000 cells derived from embryonic stem cells.”

Humayun and Clegg have just started their clinical trial with this work so it is likely going to be some time before we have any results.

These are just two of the many different approaches, using several different methods, to address vision loss. The article is a fascinating read, giving you a sense of how science is transforming people’s lives. It’s also wonderfully written by David Dobbs, including observations like this:

“Neuroscientists love the eye because “it’s the only place you see the brain without drilling a hole,” as one put it to me.”

For a vision of the future, a future that could mean restoring vision to those who have lost it, it’s a terrific read.

 

Salk Scientists Unlock New Secrets of Autism Using Human Stem Cells

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder whose mental, physical, social and emotional symptoms are highly variable from person to person. Because individuals exhibit different combinations and severities of symptoms, the concept of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now used to define the range of conditions.

There are many hypotheses for why autism occurs in humans (which some estimates suggest now affects around 3.5 million people in the US). Some of the disorders are thought to be at the cellular level, where nerve cells do not develop normally and organize properly in the brain, and some are thought to be at the molecular level where the building blocks in cells don’t function properly. Scientists have found these clues by using tools such as studying human genetics and animal models, imaging the brains of ASD patients, and looking at the pathology of ASD brains to see what has gone wrong to cause the disease.

Unfortunately, these tools alone are not sufficient to recreate all aspects of ASD. This is where cellular models have stepped in to help. Scientists are now developing human stem cell derived models of ASD to create “autism in a dish” and are finding that the nerve cells in these models show characteristics of these disorders.

Stem cell models of autism and ASD

We’ve reported on some of these studies in previous blogs. A group from UCSD lead by CIRM grantee Alysson Muotri used induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells to model non-syndromic autism (where autism is the primary diagnosis). The work has been dubbed the “Tooth Fairy Project” – parents can send in their children’s recently lost baby teeth which contain cells that can be reprogrammed into iPS cells that can then be turned into brain cells that exhibit symptoms of autism. By studying iPS cells from individuals with non-syndromic autism, the team found a mutation in the TRPC6 gene that was linked to abnormal brain cell development and function and is also linked to Rett syndrome – a rare form of autism predominantly seen in females.

Another group from Yale generated “mini-brains” or organoids derived from the iPS cells of ASD patients. They specifically found that ASD mini-brains had an increased number of a type of nerve cell called inhibitory neurons and that blocking the production of a protein called FOXG1 returned these nerve cells back to their normal population count.

Last week, a group from the Salk Institute in collaboration with scientists at UC San Diego published findings about another stem cell model for ASD that offers new clues into the early neurodevelopmental defects seen in ASD patients.  This CIRM-funded study was led by senior author Rusty Gage and was published last week in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Unlocking clues to autism using patient stem cells

Gage and his team were fascinated by the fact that as many as 30 percent of people with ASD experience excessive brain growth during early in development. The brains of these patients have more nerve cells than healthy individuals of the same age, and these extra nerve cells fail to organize properly and in some cases form too many nerve connections that impairs their overall function.

To understand what is going wrong in early stages of ASD, Gage generated iPS cells from ASD individuals who experienced abnormal brain growth at an early age (their brains had grown up to 23 percent faster when they were toddlers compared to normal toddlers). They closely studied how these ASD iPS cells developed into brain stem cells and then into nerve cells in a dish and compared their developmental progression to that of healthy iPS cells from normal individuals.

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

They quickly observed a problem with neurogenesis – a term used to describe how brain stem cells multiply and create new nerve cells in the brain. Brain stem cells derived from ASD iPS cells displayed more neurogenesis than normal brain stem cells, and thus were creating an excess amount of nerve cells. The scientists also found that the extra nerve cells failed to form as many synaptic connections with each other, an essential process that allows nerve cells to send signals and form a functional network of communication, and also behaved abnormally and overall had less activity compared to healthy neurons. Interestingly, they saw fewer inhibitory neuron connections in ASD neurons which is contrary to what the Yale study found.

The abnormal activity observed in ASD neurons was partially corrected when they treated the nerve cells with a drug called IGF-1, which is currently being tested in clinical trials as a possible treatment for autism. According to a Salk news release, “the group plans to use the patient cells to investigate the molecular mechanisms behind IGF-1’s effects, in particular probing for changes in gene expression with treatment.”

Will stem cells be the key to understanding autism?

It’s clear that human iPS cell models of ASD are valuable in helping tease apart some of the mechanisms behind this very complicated group of disorders. Gage’s opinion is that:

“This technology allows us to generate views of neuron development that have historically been intractable. We’re excited by the possibility of using stem cell methods to unravel the biology of autism and to possibly screen for new drug treatments for this debilitating disorder.”

However, to me it’s also clear that different autism stem cell models yield different results, but these differences are likely due to which populations the iPS cells are derived from. Creating more cell lines from different ASD subpopulations will surely answer more questions about the developmental differences and differences in brain function seen in adults.

Lastly, one of the co-authors on the study, Carolina Marchetto, made a great point in the Salk news release by acknowledging that their findings are based on studying cells in a dish, not actual patient’s brains. However, Marchetto believes that these cells are useful tools for studying autism:

“It never fails to amaze me when we can see similarities between the characteristics of the cells in the dish and the human disease.”

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)


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What’s the big idea? Or in this case, what’s the 19 big ideas?

supermarket magazineHave you ever stood in line in a supermarket checkout line and browsed through the magazines stacked conveniently at eye level? (of course you have, we all have). They are always filled with attention-grabbing headlines like “5 Ways to a Slimmer You by Christmas” or “Ten Tips for Rock Hard Abs” (that one doesn’t work by the way).

So with those headlines in mind I was tempted to headline our latest Board meeting as: “19 Big Stem Cell Ideas That Could Change Your Life!”. And in truth, some of them might.

The Board voted to invest more than $4 million in funding for 19 big ideas as part of CIRM’s Discovery Inception program. The goal of Inception is to provide seed funding for great, early-stage ideas that may impact the field of human stem cell research but need a little support to test if they work. If they do work out, the money will also enable the researchers to gather the data they’ll need to apply for larger funding opportunities, from CIRM and other institutions, in the future

The applicants were told they didn’t have to have any data to support their belief that the idea would work, but they did have to have a strong scientific rational for why it might

As our President and CEO Randy Mills said in a news release, this is a program that encourages innovative ideas.

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

Randy Mills, CIRM President & CEO

“This is a program supporting early stage ideas that have the potential to be ground breaking. We asked scientists to pitch us their best new ideas, things they want to test but that are hard to get funding for. We know not all of these will pan out, but those that do succeed have the potential to advance our understanding of stem cells and hopefully lead to treatments in the future.”

So what are some of these “big” ideas? (Here’s where you can find the full list of those approved for funding and descriptions of what they involve). But here are some highlights.

Alysson Muotri at UC San Diego has identified some anti-retroviral drugs – already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – that could help stop inflammation in the brain. This kind of inflammation is an important component in several diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis. Alysson wants to find out why and how these drugs helps reduce inflammation and how it works. If he is successful it is possible that patients suffering from brain inflammation could immediately benefit from some already available anti-retroviral drugs.

Stanley Carmichael at UC Los Angeles wants to use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – these are adult cells that have been genetically re-programmed so they are capable of becoming any cell in the body – to see if they can help repair the damage caused by a stroke. With stroke the leading cause of adult disability in the US, there is clearly a big need for this kind of big idea.

Holger Willenbring at UC San Francisco wants to use stem cells to create a kind of mini liver, one that can help patients whose own liver is being destroyed by disease. The mini livers could, theoretically, help stabilize a person’s own liver function until a transplant donor becomes available or even help them avoid the need for liver transplantation in the first place. Considering that every year, one in five patients on the US transplant waiting list will die or become too sick for transplantation, this kind of research could have enormous life-saving implications.

We know not all of these ideas will work out. But all of them will help deepen our understanding of how stem cells work and what they can, and can’t, do. Even the best ideas start out small. Our funding gives them a chance to become something truly big.


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An inside look reveals the adult brain prunes its own branches

Did you know that when you’re born, your brain contains around 100 billion nerve cells? This is impressive considering that these nerve cells, also called neurons, are already connected to each other through an intricate, complex neural network that is essential for brain function.

Here’s how the brain does it. During development, neural stem cells produce neurons that navigate their way through the brain. Once at their destination, neurons set up shop and send out long extensions called axons and branched extensions called dendrites that allow them to form what are called synaptic connections through which they can communicate through electrical and chemical signals.

Studies of early brain development revealed that neurons in the developing brain go on overdrive and make more synaptic connections than they need. Between birth and early adulthood, the brain carefully prunes away weak or unnecessary connections, and by your mid-twenties, your brain has eliminated almost half of the synaptic connections you started out with as a baby.

This synaptic pruning process allows the brain to fine-tune its neural network and strengthen the connections between neurons that are important for brain function. It’s similar to how a gardener prunes away excess branches on fruit trees so that the resulting branches can produce healthier and better tasting fruit.

The brain can make new neurons

It was thought that by adulthood, this process of pruning excess connections between neurons was over. However, a new study from the Salk Institute offers visual proof that synaptic pruning occurs during adulthood similarly to how it does during development. The work was published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, and it was funded in part by CIRM.

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

The study was led by senior author and Salk Professor Rusty Gage. Gage is well known for his earlier work on adult neurogenesis. In the late 90’s, he discovered that the adult brain can in fact make new neurons, a notion that overturned the central dogma that the brain doesn’t contain stem cells and that we’re born with all the neurons we will ever have.

There are two main areas of the adult brain that harbor neural stem cells that can generate new neurons. One area is called the dentate gyrus, which is located in the memory forming area of the brain called the hippocampus. Gage and his team were curious to know whether the new neurons generated from stem cells in the dentate gyrus also experienced the same synaptic overgrowth and pruning that the neurons in the developing brain did.

Pruning the Adult Brain

They developed a special microscope technique that allowed them to visually image the development of new neurons from stem cells in the dentate gyrus of the mouse brain. Every day, they would image the growing neurons and monitor how many dendritic branches they sent out.

Newly generated neurons (green) send out branched dendritic extensions to make connections with other neurons. (Image credit: Salk Institute)

Newly generated neurons (green) send out branched dendritic extensions to make connections with other neurons. (Image credit: Salk Institute)

After observing the neurons for a few weeks, they were amazed to discover that these new neurons behaved similarly to neurons in the developing brain. They sent out dozens of dendritic branches and formed synaptic connections with other neurons, some of which were eventually pruned away over time.

This phenomenon was observed more readily when they made the mice exercise, which stimulated the stem cells in the dentate gyrus to divide and produce more neurons. These exercise-induced neurons robustly sent out dendritic branches only to have them pruned back later.

First author on the paper, Tiago Gonçalves commented on their observations:

“What was really surprising was that the cells that initially grew faster and became bigger were pruned back so that, in the end, they resembled all the other cells.”

Rusty Gage was also surprised by their findings but explained that developing neurons, no matter if they are in the developing or adult brain, have evolved this process in order to establish the best connections.

“We were surprised by the extent of the pruning we saw. The results suggest that there is significant biological pressure to maintain or retain the dendrite tree of these neurons.”

A diagram showing how the adult brain prunes back the dendritic branches of newly developing neurons over time. (Image credit: Salk Institute).

A diagram showing how the adult brain prunes back the dendritic branches of newly developing neurons over time. (Image credit: Salk Institute).

Potential new insights into brain disorders

This study is important because it increases our understanding of how neurons develop in the adult brain. Such knowledge can help scientists gain a better understanding of what goes wrong in brain disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and epilepsy, where defects in how neurons form synaptic connections or how these connections are pruned are to blame.

Gonçalves also mentioned that this study raises another important question related to the regenerative medicine applications of stem cells for neurological disease.

“This also has big repercussions for regenerative medicine. Could we replace cells in this area of the brain with new stem cells and would they develop in the same way? We don’t know yet.”


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