Rare Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Heart Function: Breakthroughs for Three CIRM-Funded Studies

This past week, there has been a lot of mention of CIRM funded studies that really highlight the importance of the work we support and the different disease areas we make an impact on. This includes important research related to rare disease, Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), and heart function. Below is a summary of the promising CIRM-funded studies released this past week for each one of these areas.

Rare Disease

Comparison of normal (left) and Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) brains (right) at age 2. 

Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) is a rare genetic condition affecting boys. It can be fatal before 10 years of age and symptoms of the disease include weakness and breathing difficulties. PMD is caused by a disruption in the formation of myelin, a type of insulation around nerve fibers that allows electrical signals in the brain to travel quickly. Without proper signaling, the brain has difficulty communicating with the rest of the body. Despite knowing what causes PMD, it has been difficult to understand why there is a disruption of myelin formation in the first place.

However, in a CIRM-funded study, Dr. David Rowitch, alongside a team of researchers at UCSF, Stanford, and the University of Cambridge, has been developing potential stem cell therapies to reverse or prevent myelin loss in PMD patients.

Two new studies, of which Dr. Rowitch is the primary author, published in Cell Stem Cell, and Stem Cell Reports, respectively report promising progress in using stem cells derived from patients to identify novel PMD drugs and in efforts to treat the disease by directly transplanting neural stem cells into patients’ brains. 

In a UCSF press release, Dr. Rowitch talks about the implications of his findings, stating that,

“Together these studies advance the field of stem cell medicine by showing how a drug therapy could benefit myelination and also that neural stem cell transplantation directly into the brains of boys with PMD is safe.”

Type 1 Diabetes

Viacyte, a company that is developing a treatment for Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), announced in a press release that the company presented preliminary data from a CIRM-funded clinical trial that shows promising results. T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone that enables our bodies to break down sugar in the blood. CIRM has been funding ViaCyte from it’s very earliest days, investing more than $72 million into the company.

The study uses pancreatic precursor cells, which are derived from stem cells, and implants them into patients in an encapsulation device. The preliminary data showed that the implanted cells, when effectively engrafted, are capable of producing circulating C-peptide, a biomarker for insulin, in patients with T1D. Optimization of the procedure needs to be explored further.

“This is encouraging news,” said Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “We are very aware of the major biologic and technical challenges of an implantable cell therapy for Type 1 Diabetes, so this early biologic signal in patients is an important step for the Viacyte program.”

Heart Function

Although various genome studies have uncovered over 500 genetic variants linked to heart function, such as irregular heart rhythms and heart rate, it has been unclear exactly how they influence heart function.

In a CIRM-funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at UCSD studied this link further by deriving heart cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells were in turn derived from skin samples of seven family members. After conducting extensive genome-wide analysis, the team discovered that many of these genetic variations influence heart function because they affect the binding of a protein called NKX2-5.

In a press release by UCSD, Dr. Frazer elaborated on the important role this protein plays by stating that,

“NKX2-5 binds to many different places in the genome near heart genes, so it makes sense that variation in the factor itself or the DNA to which it binds would affect that function. As a result, we are finding that multiple heart-related traits can share a common mechanism — in this case, differential binding of NKX2-5 due to DNA variants.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Genetics.

Engineered T cells made from stem cells could provide immunity against multiple cancers

Dr. Lily Yang

Within all of our bodies there is a special type of “super” immune cell that holds enormous potential. Unlike regular immune cells that can only attack one cancer at a time, these “super” immune cells have the ability to target many types of cancers at once. These specialized cells are known as invariant natural killer T cells or iNKT cells for short. Unfortunately, there are relatively few of these cells normally present in the body.

However, in a CIRM-funded study, Dr. Lily Yang and her team of researchers at UCLA have found a way to produce iNKT cells from human blood stem cells. They were then able to test these iNKT cells on mice with both human bone marrow and human cancers. These mice either had multiple melanoma, a type of blood cancer, or melanoma, a solid tumor cancer. The researchers then studied what happened to mice’s immune system, cancers, and engineered iNKT cells after they had integrated into the bone marrow.

The results were remarkable. The team found that the blood stem cells now differentiated normally into iNKT cells, producing iNKT cells for the rest of the animal’s life, which was generally about a year. Mice without the engineered stem cell transplants had undetectable levels of iNKT cells while those that received the engineered cells had iNKT cells make up as much as 60% of the total immune system cells. The team also found that the engineered iNKT cells were able to suppress tumor growth in both multiple myeloma and melanoma.

Dr. Yang, in a press release by UCLA health, discussed the significance of the results in this animal model and the enormous potential this could have for cancer patients.

“What’s really exciting is that we can give this treatment just once and it increases the number of iNKT cells to levels that can fight cancer for the lifetime of the animals.” said Yang.

In the same press release, Dr. Yang continued to highlight the study’s importance by saying that,

“One advantage of this approach is that it’s a one-time cell therapy that can provide patients with a lifelong supply of iNKT cells.”

Researchers mentioned that they could control total iNKT cell make up in the immune system depending on how they engineered the blood stem cells. However, more research is needed to determine how these engineered iNKT cells might be useful for treating cancer in humans and evaluating any long-term side effects associated with an increased number of these cells.

The full results of this study were published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Scientists at USC untangle the mysteries of cellular reprogramming- a method that could be used to treat diseases

Dr. Justin Ichida, Assistant Professor at USC and lead author of the study

Scientists have long tried to repurpose cells in order to potentially treat various types of conditions. This process, called reprogramming, involves changing one type of cell into another, such as a blood cell into a muscle cell or nerve cell. Although the technique has been around for decades, it has only been effective 1% of the time.

Fortunately, thanks in part to a CIRM grant, Dr. Justin Ichida and other researchers at USC have been able to untangle this complicated process to ensure reprogramming happens more efficiently. The researchers were able to figure out a process that reprograms cells much more reliably than previous methods.

USC scientists have found a solution to untangle twisty DNA, removing kinks so the molecules can be used to reprogram cells to advance regenerative medicine to treat disease.
Photo courtesy of Illustration/iStock

The technique the scientists developed uses an enzyme to untangle reprogramming DNA, similar to how a hairdresser conditions untangled hair. Since DNA molecules are twisty by nature, due to the double helix configuration, they do not respond well when manipulated to change itself. Therefore, reprogramming DNA requires uncoiling, yet when scientists begin to unravel the molecules, they knot up tighter.

“Think of it as a phone cord, which is coily to begin with, then gets more coils and knots when something is trying to harm it,” Dr. Ichida said in a press release by USC.

To smooth the kinks, the researchers treated cells with a chemical and genetic cocktail that activates enzymes that open up the DNA molecules. This process releases the coiled tension and lays out the DNA smoothly, leading to more efficient cellular reprogramming.

This new technique works almost 100% of the time and has been proven in human and mouse cells. The increased efficiency of this techniques opens the possibilities for studying disease development and drug treatments. New cells could be created to replace lost cells or acquire cells that can’t be extracted from people, a problem observed in Parkinson’s, ALS, and other neurological diseases.

Moreover, since these reprogrammed cells are the same age as the parent cell, they could be used to better understand age-related diseases. It is possible that the reprogrammed cells may be better at creating age-accurate models of human disease, which are useful to study a wide array of degenerative diseases and accelerated aging syndromes.

To summarize his work, Dr. Ichida states in the USC press release that,

“A modern approach for disease studies and regenerative medicine is to induce cells to switch their identity. This is called reprogramming, and it enables the attainment of inaccessible tissue types from diseased patients for examination, as well as the potential restoration of lost tissue. However, reprogramming is extremely inefficient, limiting its utility. In this study, we’ve identified the roadblock that prevents cells from switching their identity. It turns out to be tangles on the DNA within cells that form during the reprogramming process. By activating enzymes that untangle the DNA, we enable near 100% reprogramming efficiency.”

The full findings of this study can be found in Cell Stem Cell.

“Brains” in a dish that can create electrical impulses

Brain organoids in a petri dish: photo courtesy UCSD

For several years, researchers have been able to take stem cells and use them to make three dimensional structures called organoids. These are a kind of mini organ that scientists can then use to study what happens in the real thing. For example, creating kidney organoids to see how kidney disease develops in patients.

Scientists can do the same with brain cells, creating clumps of cells that become a kind of miniature version of parts of the brain. These organoids can’t do any of the complex things our brains do – such as thinking – but they do serve as useful physical models for us to use in trying to develop a deeper understanding of the brain.

Now Alysson Muotri and his team at UC San Diego – in a study supported by two grants from CIRM – have taken the science one step further, developing brain organoids that allow us to measure the level of electrical activity they generate, and then compare it to the electrical activity seen in the developing brain of a fetus. That last sentence might cause some people to say “What?”, but this is actually really cool science that could help us gain a deeper understanding of how brains develop and come up with new ways to treat problems in the brain caused by faulty circuitry, such as autism or schizophrenia.

The team developed new, more effective methods of growing clusters of the different kinds of cells found in the brain. They then placed them on a multi-electrode array, a kind of muffin tray that could measure electrical impulses. As they fed the cells and increased the number of cells in the trays they were able to measure changes in the electrical impulses they gave off. The cells went from producing 3,000 spikes a minute to 300,000 spikes a minute. This is the first time this level of activity has been achieved in a cell-based laboratory model. But that’s not all.

When they further analyzed the activity of the organoids, they found there were some similarities to the activity seen in the brains of premature babies. For instance, both produced short bursts of activity, followed by a period of inactivity.

Alysson Muotri

In a news release Muotri says they were surprised by the finding:

“We couldn’t believe it at first — we thought our electrodes were malfunctioning. Because the data were so striking, I think many people were kind of skeptical about it, and understandably so.”

Muotri knows that this research – published in the journal Cell Stem Cell – raises ethical issues and he is quick to say that these organoids are nothing like a baby’s brain, that they differ in several critical ways. The organoids are tiny, not just in size but also in the numbers of cells involved. They also don’t have blood vessels to keep them alive or help them grow and they don’t have any ability to think.

“They are far from being functionally equivalent to a full cortex, even in a baby. In fact, we don’t yet have a way to even measure consciousness or sentience.”

What these organoids do have is the ability to help us look at the structure and activity of the brain in ways we never could before. In the past researchers depended on mice or other animals to test new ideas or therapies for human diseases or disorders. Because our brains are so different than animal brains those approaches have had limited results. Just think about how many treatments for Alzheimer’s looked promising in animal models but failed completely in people.

These new organoids allow us to explore how new therapies might work in the human brain, and hopefully increase our ability to develop more effective treatments for conditions as varied as epilepsy and autism.

Stanford study successful in transplant of mismatched stem cells, tissue in mice

Dr. Irv Weissman at Stanford University

A transplant can be a lifesaving procedure for many people across the United States. In fact, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration, 36,528 transplants were performed in 2018. However, as of January 2019, the number of men, women, and children on the national transplant waiting list is over 113,000, with 20 people dying each day waiting for a transplant and a new person being added to the list every 10 minutes.

Before considering a transplant, there needs to be an immunological match between the donated tissue and/or blood stem cells and the recipient. To put it simply, a “match” indicates that the donor’s cells will not be marked by the recipient’s immune cells as foreign and begin to attack it, a process known as graft-versus-host disease. Unfortunately, these matches can be challenging to find, particularly for some ethnic minorities. Often times, immunosuppression drugs are also needed in order to prevent the foreign cells from being attacked by the body’s immune system. Additionally, chemotherapy and radiation are often needed as well.

Fortunately, a CIRM-funded study at Stanford has shown some promising results towards addressing the issue of matching donor cells and recipient. Dr. Irv Weissman and his colleagues at Stanford have found a way to prepare mice for a transplant of blood stem cells, even when donor and recipient are an immunological mismatch. Their method involved using a combination of six specific antibodies and does not require ongoing immunosuppression.

The combination of antibodies did this by eliminating several types of immune cells in the animals’ bone marrow, which allowed blood stem cells to engraft and begin producing blood and immune cells without the need for continued immunosuppression. The blood stem cells used were haploidentical, which, to put it simply, is what naturally occurs between parent and child, or between about half of all siblings. 

Additional experiments also showed that the mice treated with the six antibodies could also accept completely mismatched purified blood stem cells, such as those that might be obtained from an embryonic stem cell line. 

The results established in this mouse model could one day lay the foundation necessary to utilize this approach in humans after conducting clinical trials. The idea would be that a patient that needs a transplanted organ could first undergo a safe, gentle transplant with blood stem cells derived in the laboratory from embryonic stem cells. The same embryonic stem cells could also then be used to generate an organ that would be fully accepted by the recipient without requiring the need for long-term treatment with drugs to suppress the immune system. 

In a news release, Dr. Weissman is quoted as saying,

“With support by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, we’ve been able to make important advances in human embryonic stem cell research. In the past, these stem cell transplants have required a complete match to avoid rejection and reduce the chance of graft-versus-host disease. But in a family with four siblings the odds of having a sibling who matches the patient this closely are only one in four. Now we’ve shown in mice that a ‘half match,’ which occurs between parents and children or in two of every four siblings, works without the need for radiation, chemotherapy or ongoing immunosuppression. This may open up the possibility of transplant for nearly everyone who needs it. Additionally, the immune tolerance we’re able to induce should in the future allow the co-transplantation of [blood] stem cells and tissues, such as insulin-producing cells or even organs generated from the same embryonic stem cell line.”

The full results to this study were published in Cell Stem Cell.

Blood-brain barrier chip created with stem cells expands potential for personalized medicine

An Organ-Chip used in the study to create a blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The brain is a complex part of the human body that allows for the formation of thoughts and consciousness. In many ways it is the essence of who we are as individuals. Because of its importance, our bodies have developed various layers of protection around this vital organ, one of which is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The BBB is a thin border of various cell types around the brain that regulate what can enter the brain tissue through the bloodstream. Its primary purpose is to prevent toxins and other unwanted substances from entering the brain and damaging it. Unfortunately this barrier can also prevent helpful medications, designed to fix problems, from reaching the brain.

Several brain disorders, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and Huntington’s Disease (HD) have been linked to defective BBBs that keep out critical biomolecules needed for healthy brain activity.

In a CIRM-funded study, a team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center created a BBB through the use of stem cells and an Organ-Chip made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are a specific type of stem cells that can turn into any type of cell in the body and can be generated from a person’s own cells. In this study, iPSCs were created from adult blood samples and used to make the neurons and other supporting cells that make up the BBB. These cells were then placed inside an Organ-Chip which recreates the environment that cells normally experience within the human body.

Inside the 3-D Organ-Chip, the cells were able to form a BBB that functions as it does in the body, with the ability to block entry of certain drugs. Most notably, when the BBB was generated from cell samples of patients with HD, the BBB malfunctioned in the same way that it does in patients with the disease.

These findings expand the potential for personalized medicine for various brain disorders linked to problems in the BBB. In a press release, Dr. Clive Svendsen, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and senior author of the study, was quoted as saying,

“The study’s findings open a promising pathway for precision medicine. The possibility of using a patient-specific, multicellular model of a blood barrier on a chip represents a new standard for developing predictive, personalized medicine.”

The full results of the study were published in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell.

Of Mice and Men, and Women Too; Stem cell stories you might have missed

Mice brains can teach us a lot

Last week’s news headlines were dominated by one big story, the use of a stem cell transplant to effectively cure a person of HIV. But there were other stories that, while not quite as striking, did also highlight how the field is advancing.

A new way to boost brain cells (in mice!)

It’s hard to fix something if you don’t really know what’s wrong in the first place. It would be like trying to determine why a car is not working just by looking at the hood and not looking inside at the engine. The human brain is far more complex than a car so trying to determine what’s going wrong is infinitely more challenging. But a new study could help give us a new option.

Researchers in Luxembourg and Germany have developed a new computer model for what’s happening inside the brain, identifying what cells are not operating properly, and fixing them.

Antonio del Sol, one of the lead authors of the study – published in the journal Cell – says their new model allows them to identify which stem cells are active and ready to divide, or dormant. 

“Our results constitute an important step towards the implementation of stem cell-based therapies, for instance for neurodegenerative diseases. We were able to show that, with computational models, it is possible to identify the essential features that are characteristic of a specific state of stem cells.”

The work, done in mice, identified a protein that helped keep brain stem cells inactive in older animals. By blocking this protein they were able to help “wake up” those stem cells so they could divide and proliferate and help regenerate the aging brain.

And if it works in mice it must work in people right? Well, that’s what they hope to see next.

Deeper understanding of fetal development

According to the Mayo Clinic between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (though they admit the real number may be even higher) and our lack of understanding of fetal development makes it hard to understand why. A new study reveals a previously unknown step in this development that could help provide some answers and, hopefully, lead to ways to prevent miscarriages.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden used genetic sequencing to follow the development stages of mice embryos. By sorting those different sequences into a kind of blueprint for what’s happening at every stage of development they were able to identify a previously unknown phase. It’s the time between when the embryo attaches to the uterus and when it begins to turn these embryonic stem cells into identifiable parts of the body.

Qiaolin Deng, Karolinska Institute

Lead researcher Qiaolin Deng says this finding provides vital new evidence.

“Being able to follow the differentiation process of every cell is the Holy Grail of developmental biology. Knowledge of the events and factors that govern the development of the early embryo is indispensable for understanding miscarriages and congenital disease. Around three in every 100 babies are born with fetal malformation caused by faulty cellular differentiation.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.

Could a new drug discovery reduce damage from a heart attack?

Every 40 seconds someone in the US has a heart attack. For many it is fatal but even for those who survive it can lead to long-term damage to the heart that ultimately leads to heart failure. Now British researchers think they may have found a way to reduce that likelihood.

Using stem cells to create human heart muscle tissue in the lab, they identified a protein that is activated after a heart attack or when exposed to stress chemicals. They then identified a drug that can block that protein and, when tested in mice that had experienced a heart attack, they found it could reduce damage to the heart muscle by around 60 percent.

Prof Michael Schneider, the lead researcher on the study, published in Cell Stem Cell, said this could be a game changer.

“There are no existing therapies that directly address the problem of muscle cell death and this would be a revolution in the treatment of heart attacks. One reason why many heart drugs have failed in clinical trials may be that they have not been tested in human cells before the clinic. Using both human cells and animals allows us to be more confident about the molecules we take forward.”

Media shine a spotlight on dodgy stem cell clinics

A doctor collects fat from a patient’’s back as part of an experimental stem cell procedure in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Dec. 5, 2014. (Raquel Maria Dillon / Associated Press)

For several years now, we have been trying to raise awareness about the risks posed by clinics offering unproven or unapproved stem cell therapies. At times it felt as if we were yelling into the wind, that few people were listening. But that’s slowly changing. A growing number of TV stations and newspapers are picking up the message and warning their readers and viewers. It’s a warning that is getting national exposure.

Why are we concerned about these clinics? Well, they claim their therapies, which usually involve the patient’s own fat or blood cells, can cure everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. However, they offer no scientific proof, have no studies to back up their claims and charge patients thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

In the LA Times, for example, reporter Usha Lee McFarling, wrote an article headline “California has gone crazy for sketchy stem cell treatments”. In it she writes about the claims made by these clinics and the dangers they pose:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it is. There is no good scientific evidence the pricey treatments work, and there is growing evidence that some are dangerous, causing blindness, tumors and paralysis. Medical associations, the federal government and even Consumer Reports have all issued stern warnings to patients about the clinics.”

In Denver, the ABC TV station recently did an in-depth interview with a local doctor who is trying to get Colorado state legislators to take legal action against stem cell clinics making these kinds of unsupported claims.

Chris Centeno of the Centeno-Schultz Clinic, who’s specialized in regenerative medicine and research for more than a decade, said too many people are simply being scammed.

“It’s really out of control,” he told the station.

ABC7 did a series of reports last year on the problem and that may be prompting this push for a law warning consumers about the dangers posed by these unregulated treatments which are advertised heavily online, on TV and in print.

In California there is already one law on the books attempting to warn consumers about these clinics. CIRM worked with State Senator Ed Hernandez to get that passed (you can read about that here) and we are continuing to support even stronger measures.

And the NBC TV station in San Diego recently reported on the rise of stem cell clinics around the US, a story that was picked up by the networks and run on the NBC Today Show.

One of the critical elements in helping raise awareness about the issue has been the work done by Paul Knoepfler and Leigh Turner in identifying how many of these clinics there are around the US. Their report, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, was the first to show how big the problem is. It attracted national attention and triggered many of the reports that followed.

It is clear momentum is building and we hope to build on that even further. Obviously, the best solution would be to have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) crack down on these clinics, and in some cases they have. But the FDA lacks the manpower to tackle all of them.

That’s where the role of the media is so important. By doing stories like these and raising awareness about the risks these clinics pose they can hopefully help many patients avoid treatments that will do little except make a dent in their pocket.

Sequencing data helps us understand the genes involved in heart cell development

skin cells to beating heart

Human heart cells generated in the laboratory. Image courtesy of Nathan Palapant at the University of Queensland

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States and is estimated to be responsible for 31% of all deaths globally. This disease encompasses a wide variety of conditions that all effect how well your heart is able to pump blood to the rest of your body. One of the reasons that heart disease is so devastating is because, unlike many other organs in our bodies, heart tissue is not able to repair itself once it is damaged. Now scientists at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland and the Garvan Institute for Medical Research in Australia have conducted a tour de force study to exquisitely understand the genes involved in heart development.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. in a press release, Dr. Nathan Palapant, one of the the lead authors, says this type of research could pay dividends for heart disease treatment because:

“We think the answers to heart repair almost certainly lie in understanding heart development. If we can get to grips with the complex choreography of how the heart builds itself in the first place, we’re well placed to find new approaches to helping it rebuild after damage.”

To determine which genes are involved in heart cell development, the investigators use a method called single cell RNA sequencing. This technique allowed them to measure how 17,000 genes (almost every gene that is active in the heart) were being turned on and off during various stages of heart cell development in 40,000 human pluripotent stem cells (stem cells that are capable of becoming any other cell type) experimentally induced to turn into heart cells.  This data set, the first of its kind, is a critical new resource for all scientists studying heart development and disease.

Interestingly, this study also addressed a commonly present, but rarely discussed issue with scientific studies: how applicable are results generated in vitro (in the lab) rather than the body, in the context of human health and disease? It is well known that heart cells generated in the lab do not have the exact same characteristics as mature heart cells found in our bodies, but the extent and precise nature of those discrepancies is not well understood. These scientists find that a gene called HOPX, which is one of earliest markers of heart cell development, is not always expressed when it should be during in vitro cardiac cell development, which, in turn, affects expression of other genes that are downstream of HOPX later on in development. Therefore, these scientists suggest that mis-expression of HOPX  might be one reason why in vitro heart cells express different genes and are distinct from heart cells in humans.

The scientists also learned that HOPX is responsible for controlling whether the developing heart cell moves past the “immature” dividing phase to the mature phase where cells grow bigger, but do not divide. This finding shows that this data set is powerful both for determining differences between laboratory grown cells versus mature human cells, but also provides critical biological information about heart cell development.

Joseph Powell, another lead author of this research, further explains how this work contributes to the important fundamentals of heart cell development:

“Each cell goes through its own series of complex, nuanced changes. They are all different, and changes in one cell affect the activity of other cells. By tracking those changes across the different stages of development, we can learn a huge amount about how different sub-types of heart cells are controlled, and how they work together to build the heart.”

Support cells have different roles in blood stem cell maintenance before and after stress

How-Stem-Cells-Act-When-Stressed-Versus-When-At-Rest

Expression of pleiotrophin (green) in bone marrow blood vessels (red) and stromal cells (white) in normal mice (left), and in mice 24 hours after irradiation (right). UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Cell Stem Cell

A new study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, reveals how different types of cells in the bone marrow are responsible for supporting blood stem cell maintenance before and after injury.

It was already well known in the field that two different cell types, namely endothelial cells (which line blood vessels) and stromal cells (which make up connective tissue, or tissue that provides structural support for any organ), are responsible for maintaining the population of blood stem cells in the bone marrow. However, how these cells and the molecules they secrete impact blood stem cell development and maintenance is not well understood.

Hematopoietic stem cells are responsible for generating the multiple different types of cells found in blood, from our oxygen carrying red blood cells to the many different types of white blood cells that make up our immune system.

Dr. John Chute’s group at UCLA had previously discovered that a molecule called pleiotrophin, or PTN, is important for promoting self-renewal of the blood stem cell population. They did not, however, understand which cells secrete this molecule and when.

To answer this question, the scientists developed mouse models that did not produce PTN in different types of bone marrow cells, such as endothelial cells and stromal cells. Surprisingly, they saw that the inability of stromal cells to produce PTN decreased the blood stem cell population, but deletion of PTN in endothelial cells did not affect the blood stem cell niche.

Even more interestingly, the researchers found that in animals that were subjected to an environmental stressor, in this case, radiation, the result was reversed: endothelial cell PTN was necessary for blood stem cell renewal, whereas stromal cell PTN was not. While an important part of the knowledge base for blood stem cell biology, the reason for this switch in PTN secretion at times of homeostasis and disease is still unknown.

As Dr. Chute states in a press release, this result could have important implications for cancer treatments such as radiation:

“It may be possible to administer modified, recombinant versions of pleiotrophin to patients to accelerate blood cell regeneration. This strategy also may apply to patients undergoing bone marrow transplants.”

Another important consideration to take away from this work is that animal models developed in the laboratory should take into account the possibility that blood stem cell maintenance and regeneration is distinctly controlled under healthy and disease state. In other words, cellular function in one state is not always indicative of its role in another state.

This work was partially funded by a CIRM Leadership Award.