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)


Related Links

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.


Related Links:

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.”


Related Links:

UCSF Scientists find molecular link between brain stem cells and Zika Infection

The Zika virus scare came to a head in 2015, prompting the World Health Organization to declare the outbreak a global health emergency earlier this year. From a research standpoint, much of the effort has centered on understanding whether the Zika infection is actually a cause of birth defects like microcephaly and how the virus infects mothers and their unborn children.

The Zika Virus is spread by a specific type of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti.

The Zika Virus is spread to humans by mosquitos.

What’s known so far is that the Zika virus can pass from the mother to the fetus through the placenta and it can infect the developing brain of the fetus. But how exactly the virus infects brain cells is less clear.

Brain stem cells are vulnerable to Zika

Scientists from UC San Francisco (UCSF) are tackling this question and have unraveled one more piece to the Zika infection puzzle. UCSF professor Dr. Arnold Kriegstein and his team reported yesterday in the journal Cell Stem Cell that they’ve identified a protein receptor on the surface of brain stem cells that could be the culprit for Zika virus infection.

Based on previous studies that showed that the Zika virus specifically infects brain stem cells, Kriegstein and his colleagues hypothesized that these cells expressed specific proteins that made them vulnerable to Zika infection. They looked to see which genes were turned on and off in brain stem cells derived from donated fetal tissue as well as other cell types in the developing brain to identify proteins that would mediate Zika virus entry.

AXL is to blame

They found a protein receptor called AXL that was heavily expressed in a type of brain stem cell called the radial glial cell, which gives rise to the outer layer of the brain called the cerebral cortex. AXL piqued their interest because it was identified in other studies as an entry point for Zika and other similar viruses like dengue in human skin cells. Furthermore, the team confirmed that radial glial cells produce a lot of AXL protein during development and it appears during a specific window of time – the second trimester of pregnancy.

A link between radial glial cells and Zika infection made sense to first author Tomasz Nowakowski who explained in a UCSF news release,

“In the rare cases of congenital microcephaly, these [radial glial cells] are the cells that die or differentiate prematurely, which is one of the reasons we became interested in the possible link.”

The team also found that AXL was expressed in mature brain cells including astrocytes and microglia and in retinal progenitor cells in the eye. They pointed out that the presence of AXL in the developing eye could help explain why many cases of Zika infection are associated with eye defects.

Modeling Zika infection using mini-brains

The bulk of the study used stem cells isolated from donated human fetal tissue, but the team also developed a different stem cell model to confirm their results. They generated brain organoids, also coined as “mini-brains”, in a dish from human induced pluripotent stem cells. These mini-brains contain structures and cell types that closely resemble parts of the developing brain. The team studied radial glial like cells in the mini-brains and found that they also expressed AXL on their surface.

An image of tissue that’s grown in a dish shows radial glia stem cells that are red, neurons in blue and the AXL receptor in green. Photo by Elizabeth DiLullo

Mini-brains grown in a dish have radial glia stem cells (red), neurons (blue) and the AXL receptor (green). Photo by Elizabeth DiLullo, UCSF

Kriegstein and his team believe they now have a working stem cell model for how viruses like Zika can infect the brain. Using their brain organoid model, they plan to collaborate with other UCSF researchers to learn more about how Zika infection occurs and whether it really causes birth defects.

“If we can understand how Zika may be causing birth defects,” Kriegstein said, “we can start looking for compounds to protect pregnant women who become infected.”

What’s next?

While the evidence points towards AXL as one of the major entry points for Zika infection in the developing brain, the UCSF team and other scientists still need to confirm that this receptor is to blame.

Kriegstein explained:

Arnold Kriegstein, UCSF

Arnold Kriegstein, UCSF

“While by no means a full explanation, we believe that the expression of AXL by these cell types is an important clue for how the Zika virus is able to produce such devastating cases of microcephaly, and it fits very nicely with the evidence that’s available. AXL isn’t the only receptor that’s been linked with Zika infection, so next we need to move from ‘guilt by association’ and demonstrate that blocking this specific receptor can prevent infection.”

If AXL turns out to be the culprit, scientists will have to be careful about testing drugs that block its function given that AXL is important for the proliferation of brain stem cells during development. There might be a way however that such treatments could be given to at risk women before they get pregnant.


Related Links:

Unlocking the brain’s secrets: scientists find over 100 unique mutations in brain cells

Your brain is made up of approximately 100 billion neurons. These are the cells that process information and pass along electrical and chemical signals to their other neuron buddies throughout the body to coordinate thoughts, movement, and many other functions. It’s no small task to create the intricate neuronal network that is the backbone of the central nervous system. If any of these neurons or a group of neurons acquire genetic mutations that alter their function, a lot can go wrong.

The genetic makeup of neurons is particularly interesting because it appears that each neuron has its own unique genome. That means 100 billion different genomes in a single cell type in the brain. Scientists suggest that this “individuality” could explain why monozygotic, or identical, twins have different personalities and susceptibilities to neurological disorders or mental illnesses and why humans develop brain diseases or cancer over time.

To understand what a genome of a cell looks like, you need to sequence its genetic material, or the DNA, that’s housed in a cell’s nucleus. Sequencing the genome of an individual cell is hard to do accurately with our current technology, so scientists have developed clever alternatives to get a front-row view into the workings of neuronal genomes.

Cloning mouse neurons reveals 100+ unique genetic mutations

One such method was published recently in the journal Neuron by a CIRM-funded team from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). Led by senior author and Associate Professor at TSRI, Kristen Baldwin, the team took on the challenge of cloning individual mouse neurons to unlock the secrets of neuronal genomes. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, cloning is a process that produces new cells or organisms that harbor identical genetic information from the originating cell.)

What they found from their cloning experiment was surprising: each neuron they sequenced had an average of more than 100 unique genetic mutations, and these mutations tended to appear in genes that were heavily used by neurons, something that is uncommon in cell types of other organs that tend to protect their frequently used genes. Their findings could help unravel the mystery behind some of the causes for diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism.

In a TSRI news release, Kristen Baldwin explained:

Kristen Baldwin

Kristen Baldwin

“Neuronal genomes have remained a mystery for a long time. The findings in this study and the extensive validation of genome sequencing-based mutation discovery that this method permits, open the door to additional studies of brain mutations in aging and disease, which may help us understand or treat cognitive decline in aging, neurodegeneration and neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism.”

Making mice with neuronal genomes

To clone individual neurons, the team took the nucleus of a single neuron and transplanted it into a mouse egg cell that lacked its own nucleus. The egg developed and matured all while copying and passing on the genetic information of the original mouse neuron. The team generated cloned embryonic stem cell lines from these eggs and were able to expand the stem cell lines to generate millions of stem cells that contained the same genetic material.

TSRI Research Assistant Alberto Rodriguez uses a tiny straw-like micropipette to pick up red fluorescent neurons and transfer their genomes into an egg.

TSRI scientists extract the nuclei of neurons and transfer their genomes into an egg. (Image courtesy of TSRI)

They made several different cloned stem cell lines representing different neuronal genomes and sequenced these lines to identify unique genetic mutations. They also were able to generate cloned stem cell lines from the neurons of older mice, and thus were able to track the accumulation of genetic mutations over time. Even more impressive, they made living mice that contained the cloned genomes of individual neurons in all of their cells, proving that neuronal genomes are compatible with development.

The team did report that not all neurons could be developed into cloned stem cell lines for reasons that they couldn’t fully explain, but they decided to focus on studying the cloned stem cell lines that were successful.

What does this mean for humans?

Baldwin explained that what was most surprising about their study was “that every neuron we looked at was unique – carrying more than 100 DNA changes or mutations that were not present in other cells.”

The next steps for their research are to explore why this diversity among neuronal genomes exists and how this could contribute to neurological disease in humans.

Co-first authors Jennifer Hazen and Gregory Faust.

Co-first authors Jennifer Hazen and Gregory Faust.

Co-first author Jennifer Hazen explains, “We need to know more about mutations in the brain and how they might impact cell function.”

Also mentioned in the news release, the team plans “to study neuronal genomes of very old mice and those with neurological diseases. They hope this work will lead to new insights and therapeutic strategies for treating brain aging and neurologic diseases caused by neuronal mutations.”


Related Links:

CREATE-ing tools that deliver genes past the blood-brain barrier

Your brain has a natural defense that protects it from infection and harm, it’s called the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB is a selectively permeable layer of tightly packed cells that separates the blood in your circulatory system from your brain. Only certain nutrients, hormones, and molecules can pass through the BBB into the brain, while harmful chemicals and infection-causing bacteria are stopped at the border.

This ultimate defense barrier has its downsides though. It’s estimated that 98% of potential drugs that could treat brain diseases cannot pass through the BBB. Only some drug compounds that are very small in size or are fat-soluble can get through. Clearly, getting drugs and therapies past the BBB is a huge conundrum that remains to be solved.

Penetrating the Impenetrable

However, a CIRM-funded study published today in Nature Biotechnology has developed a delivery tool that can bypass the BBB and deliver genes into the brain. Scientists from Caltech and Stanford University used an innocuous virus called an adeno-associated virus (AAV) to transport genetic material through the BBB into brain cells.

Viral delivery is a common method to target and deliver genes or drugs to specific tissues or cells in the body. But with the brain and its impenetrable barrier, scientists are forced to surgically inject the virus into specific areas of the brain, which limits the areas of the brain that get treatment, not to mention the very invasive and potentially damaging nature of the surgery itself. For diseases that affect multiple areas in the brain, like Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease, direct injection methods are not likely to be effective. Thus, a virus that can slip past the BBB and reach all parts of the brain would be an idea tool for delivering drugs and therapies.

And that’s just what this new study accomplished. Scientists developed a method for generating modified AAVs that can be injected into the circulatory system of mice, pass through the BBB, and deliver genetic material into the brain.

They devised a viral selection assay called CREATE (which stands for Cre Recombinase-based AAV Targeted Evolution). Using CREATE, they tested millions of AAVs that all had slight differences in the genetic composition of their capsid, or the protein shell of the virus that protects the viruses’ genetic material. They tested these modified viruses in mice to see which ones were able to cross the BBB and deliver genes to support cells in the brain called astrocytes. For more details on how the science of CREATE works, you can read an eloquent summary in the Caltech press release.

A Virus that Makes Your Brain Glow Green

After optimizing their viral selection assay, the scientists were able to identify one AAV in particular, AAV-PHP.B, that was exceptionally good at getting past the BBB and targeting astrocytes in the mouse brain.

Lead author on the study, Ben Deverman, explained: “By figuring out a way to get genes across the blood-brain barrier, we are able to deliver them throughout the adult brain with high efficiency.”

They used AAV-PHP.B and AAV9 (which they knew could pass the BBB and infect brain cells) to transport a gene that codes for green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the mouse brain. After injecting mice with both viruses containing GFP, they saw that both viruses were able to make most of the cells in the brain glow green, confirming that they successfully delivered the GFP gene. When they compared the potency of AAV-PHP.B to the AAV9 virus, they saw that AAV-PHP.B was 40 times more efficient in delivering genes to the brain and spinal cord.

sing a new selection method, Caltech researchers have evolved the protein shell of a harmless virus, AAV9, so that it can more efficiently cross the blood brain barrier and deliver genes, such as the green fluorescent protein (GFP), to cells throughout the central nervous system. Here, GFP expression in naturally occurring AAV9 (left) can be seen distributed sparsely throughout the brain. The modified vector, AAV-PHP.B (right), provides more efficient GFP expression. Credit: Ben Deverman and the Gradinaru laboratory/Caltech - See more at: http://www.caltech.edu/news/delivering-genes-across-blood-brain-barrier-49679#sthash.BDu7OfC8.dpuf

Newly “CREATEd” AAV-PHP.B (right) is better at delivering the GFP gene to the brain than AAV9 (left). Credit: Ben Deverman.

“What provides most of AAV-PHP.B’s benefit is its increased ability to get through the vasculature into the brain,” said Ben Deverman. “Once there, many AAVs, including AAV9 are quite good at delivering genes to neurons and glia.”

Senior author on the study, Viviana Gradinaru at Caltech, elaborated: “We could see that AAV-PHP.B was expressed throughout the adult central nervous system with high efficiency in most cell types.”

Not only that, but using a neat technique called PARS CLARITY that Gradinaru developed in her lab, which makes tissues and organs transparent, the scientists were able to see the full reach of the AAV-PHP.B virus. They saw green cells in other organs and in the peripheral nerves, thus showing that AAV-PHP.B works in other parts of the body, not just the brain.

But just because AAV-PHP.B is effective in mice doesn’t mean it works well in humans. To address this question, the authors tested AAV-PHP.B in human neurons and astrocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). Sergiu Pasca, a collaborator from Stanford and author on the study, told the Stem Cellar:

Sergiu Pasca

Sergiu Pasca

“We have also tested the new AAV variant (AAV-PHP.B) in a human 3D cerebral cortex model developed from human iPS cells and have shown that it transduces human neurons and astrocytes more efficiently than does AAV9 demonstrating the potential for biomedical applications.”

An easier way to deliver genes across the BBB

This study provides a new way to cross the BBB and deliver genes and potential therapies that could treat a laundry list of degenerative brain diseases.

This is only the beginning for this new technology. According to the Caltech press release, the study’s authors have future plans for the AAV-PHP.B virus:

“The researchers hope to begin testing AAV-PHP.B’s ability to deliver potentially therapeutic genes in disease models. They are also working to further evolve the virus to make even better performing variants and to produce variants that target certain cell types with more specificity.”


Related Links:

Four Challenges to Making the Best Stem Cell Models for Brain Diseases

Neurological diseases are complicated. A single genetic mutation causes some, while multiple genetic and environmental factors cause others. Also, within a single neurological disease, patients can experience varying symptoms and degrees of disease severity.

And you can’t just open up the brain and poke around to see what’s causing the problem in living patients. It’s also hard to predict when someone is going to get sick until it’s already too late.

To combat these obstacles, scientists are creating clinically relevant human stem cells in the lab to capture the development of brain diseases and the differences in their severity. However, how to generate the best and most useful stem cell “models” of disease is a pressing question facing the field.

Current state of stem cell models for brain diseases

Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Hillside Campus, Location: Cold Spring Harbor, New York, Architect: Centerbrook Architects

Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Hillside Campus, Location: Cold Spring Harbor, New York, Architect: Centerbrook Architects

A group of expert stem cell scientists met earlier this year at Cold Spring Harbor in New York to discuss the current state and challenges facing the development of stem cell-based models for neurological diseases. The meeting highlighted case studies of recent advances in using patient-specific human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) to model a breadth of neurological and psychiatric diseases causes and patient symptoms aren’t fully represented in existing human cell models and mouse models.

The point of the meeting was to identify what stem cell models have been developed thus far, how successful or lacking they are, and what needs to be improved to generate models that truly mimic human brain diseases. For a full summary of what was discussed, you can read a Meeting Report about the conference in Stem Cell Reports.

What needs to be done

After reading the report, it was clear that scientists need to address four major issues before the field of patient-specific stem cell modeling for brain disorders can advance to therapeutic and clinical applications.

1. Define the different states of brain cells: The authors of the report emphasized that there needs to be a consensus on defining different cell states in the brain. For instance, in this blog we frequently refer to pluripotent stem cells and neural (brain) stem cells as a single type of cell. But in reality, both pluripotent and brain stem cells have different states, which are reflected by their ability to turn into different types of cells and activate a different set of genes. The question the authors raised was what starting cell types should be used to model specific brain disorders and how do we make them from iPS cells in a reproducible and efficient fashion?

2. Make stem cell models more complex: The second point was that iPS cell-based models need to get with the times. Just like how most action-packed or animated movies come in 3D IMAX, stem cell models also need to go 3D. The brain is comprised of an integrated network of neurons and glial support cells, and this complex environment can’t be replicated on the flat surface of a petri dish.

Advances in generating organoids (which are mini organs made from iPS cells that develop similar structures and cell types to the actual organ) look promising for modeling brain disease, but the authors admit that it’s far from a perfect science. Currently, organoids are most useful for modeling brain development and diseases like microencephaly, which occurs in infants and is caused by abnormal brain development before or after birth. For more complex neurological diseases, organoid technology hasn’t progressed to the point of providing consistent or accurate modeling.

The authors concluded:

“A next step for human iPS cell-based models of brain disorders will be building neural complexity in vitro, incorporating cell types and 3D organization to achieve network- and circuit-level structures. As the level of cellular complexity increases, new dimensions of modeling will emerge, and modeling neurological diseases that have a more complex etiology will be accessible.”

3. Address current issues in stem cell modeling: The third issue mentioned was that of human mosaicism. If you think that all the cells in your body have the same genetic blue print, then you’re wrong. The authors pointed out that as many as 30% of your skin cells have differences in their DNA structure or DNA sequences. Remember that iPS cell lines are derived from a single patient skin or other cell, so the problem is that studies might need to develop multiple iPS cell lines to truly model the disease.

Additionally, some brain diseases are caused by epigenetic factors, which modify the structure of your DNA rather than the genetic sequence itself. These changes can turn genes on and off, and they are unfortunately hard to reproduce accurately when reprogramming iPS cells from patient adult cells.

4. Improve stem cell models for drug discovery: Lastly, the authors addressed the use of iPS cell-based modeling for drug discovery. Currently, different strategies are being employed by academia and industry, both with their pros and cons.

Industry is pursuing high throughput screening of large drug libraries against known disease targets using industry standard stem cell lines. In contrast, academics are pursuing candidate drug screening on a much smaller scale but using more relevant, patient specific stem cell models.

The authors point out that, “a major goal in the still nascent human stem cell field is to utilize improved cell-based assays in the service of small-molecule therapeutics discovery and virtual early-phase clinical trials.”

While in the past, the paths that academia and industry have taken to reach this goal were different, the authors predict a convergence between the paths:

“Now, research strategies are converging, and both types of researchers are moving toward human iPS cell-based screening platforms, drifting toward a hybrid model… New collaborations between academic and pharma researchers promise a future of parallel screening for both targets and phenotypes.”

Conclusions and Looking to the Future

This meeting successfully described the current landscape of iPS cell-based disease modeling for brain disorders and laid out a roadmap for advancing these stem cell models to a stage where they are more effective for understanding the mechanisms behind disease and for therapeutic screening.

I agree with the authors conclusion that:

“Moving forward, a critical application of human iPS cell-based studies will be in providing a platform for defining the cellular, molecular, and genetic mechanisms of disease risk, which will be an essential first step toward target discovery.”

My favorite points in the report were about the need for more collaboration between academia and industry and also the push for reproducibility of these iPS cell models. Ultimately, the goal is to understand what causes neurological disease, and what drugs or stem cell therapies can be used to cure them. While iPS cell models for brain diseases still have a way to go before being more clinically relevant, they will surely play a prominent role in attaining this goal.

Meeting Attendees

Meeting Attendees