Stanford scientist uses CRISPR-Cas9 and stem cells to develop potential “bubble baby” therapy

Dr. Matthew Porteus, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University.
Photo courtesy of Stanford Medicine.

Our immune system is an important and essential part of everyday life. It is crucial for fighting off colds and, with the help of vaccinations, gives us immunity to potentially lethal diseases. Unfortunately, for some infants, this innate bodily defense mechanism is not present or is severely lacking in function.

This condition is known as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), commonly nicknamed “bubble baby” disease because of the sterile plastic bubble these infants used to be placed in to prevent exposure to bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can cause infection. There are several forms of SCID, one of which involves a single genetic mutation on the X chromosome and is known as SCID-X1

Many infants with SCID-X1 develop chronic diarrhea, a fungal infection called thrush, and skin rashes. Additionally, these infants grow slowly in comparison to other children. Without treatment, many infants with SCID-X1 do not live beyond infancy.

SCID-X1 occurs almost predominantly in males since they only carry one X chromosome, with at least 1 in 50,000 baby boys born with this condition. Since females carry two X chromosomes, one inherited from each parent, they are unlikely to inherit two X chromosomes with the mutation present since it would require the father to have SCID-X1.

What if there was a way to address this condition by correcting the single gene mutation? Dr. Matthew Porteus at Stanford University is leading a study that has developed an approach to treat SCID-X1 that utilizes this concept.

By using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which we have discussed in detail in a previous blog post, it is possible to delete a problematic gene and insert a corrected gene. Dr. Porteus and his team are using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit blood stem cells, which give rise to immune cells, which are the foundation of the body’s defense mechanism. In a study published in Nature, Dr. Porteus and his team have demonstrated proof of concept of this approach in an animal model.

The Stanford team was able to take blood stem cells from six infants with SCID-X1 and corrected them with CRISPR-Cas9. These corrected stem cells were then introduced into mice modeled to have SCID-X1. It was found that these mice were not only able to make immune cells, but many of the edited stem cells maintained their ability to continuously create new blood cells.

In a press release, Dr. Mara Pavel-Dinu, a member of the research team, said:

“To our knowledge, it’s the first time that human SCID-X1 cells edited with CRISPR-Cas9 have been successfully used to make human immune cells in an animal model.”

CIRM has previously awarded Dr. Porteus with a preclinical development award aimed at developing gene correction therapy for blood stem cells for SCID-X1. In addition to this, CIRM has funded two other projects conducted by Dr. Porteus related to CRISPR-Cas9. One of these projects used CRISPR-Cas 9 to develop a treatment for chronic sinusitis due to cystic fibrosis and the second project used the technology to develop an approach for treating sickle cell disease.

CIRM has also funded four clinical trials related to SCID. Two of these trials are related to SCID-X1, one being conducted at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the other at Stanford University. The third trial is related to a different form of SCID known as ADA-SCID and is being conducted at UCLA in partnership with Orchard Therapeutics. Finally, the last of the four trials is related to an additional form of SCID known as ART-SCID and is being conducted at UCSF.

CRISPR-Cas9 101: an overview and the role it plays in developing therapies

Illustration courtesy of TED website

There has been a lot of conversation surrounding CRISPR-Cas9 in these recent months as well as many sensational news stories. Some of these stories highlight the promise this technology holds, while others emphasize a word of caution. But what exactly does this technology do and how does it work? Here is a breakdown that will help you better understand.

To start off, CRISPR is a naturally occurring process found in bacteria used as an immune system to defend against viruses. CRISPR simply put, are strands of DNA segments that contain repeating patterns. There are “scissor like” CRISPR proteins that have the ability to cut DNA segments. When a copy of a virus enters the bacteria, these “scissor like” proteins cut a segment of DNA from the virus and insert it into CRISPR. A copy of the viral DNA is made and another “attack” protein known as Cas9 attaches to it. By binding to the viral copy, Cas9 is able to sense that virus. When the same virus tries to enter the bacteria, Cas9 is able to seek and destroy it.

You can view a more detailed video explaining this concept below.

Many scientists analyzed this process in detail and it was eventually discovered that this CRISPR-Cas9 complex could be used to removed unwanted genes and insert a corrected copy, revolutionizing the way that we view the approach towards treating a wide variety of genetic diseases.

In fact, researchers at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a strategy using this complex to treat two inherited, lethal blood disorders, sickle cell disease (SCD) and beta thalassemia. Both of these diseases involve a mutation that effects production of red blood cells, which are produced by blood stem cells. In beta-thalassemia, the mutation prevent red blood cells from being able to carry enough oxygen, leading to anemia. In SCD, the mutations cause red blood cells to take on a “sickle” shape which can block blood vessels.

By using CRISPR-Cas9 to insert a corrected copy of the gene into a patient’s own blood stem cells, this team demonstrated that functional red blood cells can then be produced. These results pay the way for other blood disorders as well.

In a press release , Dr. Daniel Bauer, an attending physician with Dana-Farber and a senior author on both of these studies stated that,

“Combining gene editing with an autologous stem-cell transplant could be a therapy for sickle-cell disease, beta-thalassemia and other blood disorders.”

In a separate study, scientists at University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a strategy that could be used to treat genetic disorders associated with unintentional repeats or copies of small DNA segments. These problematic small segments of DNA are called microduplications and cause as many as 143 different diseases, including limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome, and Tay-Sachs.

Because these are issues caused by repeats or copies of small DNA segments, the CRISPR-Cas9 complex can be used to remove microduplications without having to insert any additional genetic material.

Dr. Scot A. Wolfe, a co-investigator of this study, stated that,

“It’s like hitting the reset button. We don’t have to add any corrective genetic material, instead the cell stitches the DNA back together minus the duplication. It’s a shortcut for gene correction with potential therapeutic appeal.”

Although there has been a lot progress made with this technology, there are still concerns that need to be addressed. An article in Science mentions how two studies have shown that CRISPR can still make unintended changes to DNA, which can be potentially dangerous. In the article, Dr. Jin-Soo Kim, a CRISPR researcher at Seoul National University is quoted as saying,

“It is now important to determine which component is responsible for the collateral mutations and how to reduce or avoid them.”

Overall, CRISPR-Cas9 has revolutionized the approach of precision medicine. A wide variety of diseases are caused by small, unexpected segments of DNA. By applying this approach found in bacteria to humans, we have uncovered a way to correct these segments at the microscopic level. However, there is still much that needs to be learned and perfected before it can be utilized in patients.

Midwest universities are making important tools to advance stem cell research

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iPSCs are not just pretty, they’re also pretty remarkable

Two Midwest universities are making headlines for their contributions to stem cell research. Both are developing important tools to advance this field of study, but in two unique ways.

Scientists at the University of Michigan (UM), have compiled an impressive repository of disease-specific stem cell lines. Cell lines are crucial tools for scientists to study the mechanics of different diseases and allows them to do so without animal models. While animal models have important benefits, such as the ability to study a disease within the context of a living mammal, insights gained from such models can be difficult to translate to humans and many diseases do not even have good models to use.

The stem cell lines generated at the Reproductive Sciences Program at UM, are thanks to numerous individuals who donated extra embryos they did not use for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Researchers at UM then screened these embryos for abnormalities associated with different types of disease and generated some 36 different stem cell lines. These have been donated to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry, and include cell lines for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease and hemophilia.

Using one such cell line, Dr. Peter Todd at UM, found that the genetic abnormality associated with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that results in developmental delays and learning disabilities, can be corrected by using a novel biological tool. Because Fragile X Syndrome does not have a good animal model, this stem cell line was critical for improving our understanding of this disease.

In the next state over, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), researchers are doing similar work but using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for their work.

The Human Stem Cell Gene Editing Service has proved to be an important resource in expediting research projects across campus. They use CRISPR-Cas9 technology (an efficient method to mutate or edit the DNA of any organism), to generate human stem cell lines that contain disease specific mutations. Researchers use these cell lines to determine how the mutation affects cells and/or how to correct the cellular abnormality the mutation causes. Unlike the work at UM, these stem cell lines are derived from iPSCs  which can be generated from easy to obtain human samples, such as skin cells.

The gene editing services at UWM have already proved to be so popular in their short existence that they are considering expanding to be able to accommodate off-campus requests. This highlights the extent to which both CRISPR technology and stem cell research are being used to answer important scientific questions to advance our understanding of disease.

CIRM also created an iPSC bank that researchers can use to study different diseases. The  Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Repository is  the largest repository of its kind in the world and is used by researchers across the globe.

The iPSC Repository was created by CIRM to house a collection of stem cells from thousands of individuals, some healthy, but some with diseases such as heart, lung or liver disease, or disorders such as autism. The goal is for scientists to use these cells to better understand diseases and develop and test new therapies to combat them. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the cell types from patients that are affected in disease, but for which cells cannot otherwise be easily obtained in large quantities.

For the first time, scientists entirely reprogram human skin cells to iPSCs using CRISPR

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CRISPR iPSC colony of human skin cells showing expression of SOX2 and TRA-1-60, markers of human embryonic pluripotent stem cells

Back in 2012, Shinya Yamanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his group’s identification of “Yamanaka Factors,” a group of genes that are capable of turning ordinary skin cells into induced pluripotentent stem cells (iPSCs) which have the ability to become any type of cell within the body. Discovery of iPSCs was, and has been, groundbreaking because it not only allows for unprecedented avenues to study human disease, but also has implications for using a patient’s own cells to treat a wide variety of diseases.

Recently, Timo Otonkoski’s group at the University of Helsinki along with Juha Kere’s group at the Karolinska Institutet and King’s College, London have found a way to program iPSCs from skin cells using CRISPR, a gene editing technology. Their approach allows for the induction, or turning on of iPSCs using the cells own DNA, instead of introducing the previously identified Yamanka Factors into cells of interest.

As detailed in their study, published in the journal Nature Communications, this is the first instance of mature human cells being completely reprogrammed into pluripotent cells using only CRISPR. Instead of using the canonical CRISPR system that allows the CAS9 protein (an enzyme that is able to cut DNA, thus rendering a gene of interest dysfunctional) to mutate any gene of interest, this group used a modified version of the CAS9 protein, which allows them to turn on or off the gene that CAS9 is targeted to.

The robustness of their approach lies in the researcher’s identification of a DNA sequence that is commonly found near genes involved in embryonic development. As CAS9 needs to be guided to genes of interest to do its job, identification of this common motif allows multiple genes associated with pluripotency to be activated in mature human skin cells, and greatly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of this approach.

In a press release, Dr. Otonkoski further highlights the novelty and viability of this approach:

“…Reprogramming based on activation of endogenous genes rather than overexpression of transgenes is…theoretically a more physiological way of controlling cell fate and may result in more normal cells…”

 

Translating great stem cell ideas into effective therapies

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CIRM funds research trying to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle

In science, there are a lot of terms that could easily mystify people without a research background; “translational” is not one of them. Translational research simply means to take findings from basic research and advance them into something that is ready to be tested in people in a clinical trial.

Yesterday our Governing Board approved $15 million in funding for four projects as part of our Translational Awards program, giving them the funding and support that we hope will ultimately result in them being tested in people.

Those projects use a variety of different approaches in tackling some very different diseases. For example, researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco received $5.9 million to develop a new way to help the more than five million Americans battling Alzheimer’s disease. They want to generate brain cells to replace those damaged by Alzheimer’s, using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – an adult cell that has been changed or reprogrammed so that it can then be changed into virtually any other cell in the body.

CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and Alzheimer’s – which has no cure and no effective long-term treatments – clearly represents an unmet medical need.

Another project approved by the Board is run by a team at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). They got almost $4.5 million for their research helping people with sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that causes intense pain, and can result in strokes and organ damage. Sickle cell affects around 100,000 people in the US, mostly African Americans.

The CHORI team wants to use a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to develop a method of editing the defective gene that causes Sickle Cell, creating a healthy, sickle-free blood supply for patients.

Right now, the only effective long-term treatment for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow transplant, but that requires a patient to have a matched donor – something that is hard to find. Even with a perfect donor the procedure can be risky, carrying with it potentially life-threatening complications. Using the patient’s own blood stem cells to create a therapy would remove those complications and even make it possible to talk about curing the disease.

While damaged cartilage isn’t life-threatening it does have huge quality of life implications for millions of people. Untreated cartilage damage can, over time lead to the degeneration of the joint, arthritis and chronic pain. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) were awarded $2.5 million to develop an off-the-shelf stem cell product that could be used to repair the damage.

The fourth and final award ($2.09 million) went to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, which hopes to create a stem cell therapy for osteonecrosis. This is a painful, progressive disease caused by insufficient blood flow to the bones. Eventually the bones start to rot and die.

As Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board, said in a news release, we are hoping this is just the next step for these programs on their way to helping patients:

“These Translational Awards highlight our goal of creating a pipeline of projects, moving through different stages of research with an ultimate goal of a successful treatment. We are hopeful these projects will be able to use our newly created Stem Cell Center to speed up their progress and pave the way for approval by the FDA for a clinical trial in the next few years.”