Bridging the divide: stem cell students helping families with rare diseases become partners in research

Bridges & Rare Science

CIRM’s Bridges students and Rare Science’s families with rare diseases

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest impact. For example, introducing a scientist to a patient can help them drive stem cell research forward faster than either one could do on their own.

Want proof? This year, students in CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy program at California State University (CSU) San Marcos teamed up with parents of children with rare diseases, and the partnerships had a profound impact on all of them, one we hope might produce some long-term benefits.

Christina Waters, who helped create the partnerships, calls it “science with love.”

“We wanted to change the conversation and have researchers and families communicate, making families equal stakeholders in the research. The students bonded with the families and I truly feel that we made a difference in the lives of future researchers, in knowing how much their work can make a life changing impact on the lives of patients’ families who now have hope.”

The CIRM Bridges program helps prepare California’s undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research. Students get a paid internship where they get hands-on training and education in stem cell research. They also work with patients and take part in outreach activities so they get an understanding of research that extends beyond the lab.

That’s where Christina Waters comes in. Christina is the founder of Rare Science, a non-profit group focused on rare diseases in children – we blogged about her work here – and she teamed up with CSU San Marcos to partner their Bridges students with five patient families with different rare diseases.

Cutting edge science

One of those families was Aaron Harding’s. Aaron’s son Jaxon has SYNGAP, a genetic disorder that can cause seizures, mental retardation, speech problems and autistic-like behavior. Two of the Bridges students who were doing their internship at ThermoFisher Scientific, Uju Nwizu and Emily Asbury, were given the task of using the gene-editing tool CRISPR Cas9 to help develop a deeper understanding of SYNGAP.

The students say it was an amazing experience:

Uju: “It had a huge impact on me. Every time I thought about SYNGAP I saw Jaxon’s face. This motivated me a lot.”

Emily: “People who work in labs everyday are most often working out the minutiae of research. They don’t often get a chance to see how their research can change or save the lives of real people. Meeting patients is so motivating because afterwards you aren’t just studying a mechanism, you now have a friend with the disease, so you can’t help but be personally invested in the search for a treatment.”

Emily and Uju are working to create iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) that have the SYNGAP mutation. They hope these can be used to study the disease in greater depth and, maybe one day, lead to treatments for some of the symptoms.

Aaron says for families like his, knowing there are scientists working on his child’s disorder is a source of comfort, and hope:

“Personalizing diseases by connecting scientists with those they seek to impact is so important. Emily and Uju took this opportunity and ran with it, and that says a lot about them, and the team at ThermoFisher, taking on an exploring the unknown. That attitude is the heart of a scientist.”

Hearing stories like this is very gratifying, not just for the students and families involved, but for everyone here at CIRM. When we created the Bridges program our goal was to help students get the skills and experience needed to pursue a career in science. Thanks to the people at CSU San Marcos and Rare Science these students got a whole lot more.

Christina Waters: “We learned, we shared hope, we celebrated the courage of our families and the commitment of the students. It takes a village, and it is all of us working together that will make great changes for kids with rare diseases.”

For Uju and Emily, their experience in the Bridges program has made them doubly certain they want to pursue a career in science.

Uju: “I love stem cells and the promise they hold. After this program I hope to be part of a team that is committed to accelerating new stem cell therapies for rare and chronic diseases.”

Emily: “I’ve learned that I love research. After I finish my bachelor’s degree at CSU San Marcos I plan to pursue a graduate degree in molecular or cellular biology.”


Live streaming genes in living cells coming to a computer near you!

Christmas has come early to scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. They’ve developed a technology that allows you to watch how individual genes move and interact in living cells. You can think of it as Facebook’s live streaming meets the adventurous Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus.

Using a gene editing system called CRISPR/Cas9, the team tagged genes of interest with fluorescent proteins that light up under a microscope – allowing them to watch in real time where these genes are in a cell’s nucleus and how they interact with other genes in the genome. This research, which was funded in part by a CIRM Research Leadership award, was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Watching genes in living cells

Traditional methods for observing the locations of genes within cells, such as fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), kill the cells – giving scientists only a snapshot of the complex interactions between genes. With this new technology, scientists can track genes in living cells and generate a 3D map of where genes are located within chromatin (the DNA/protein complex that makes up our chromosomes) during the different stages of a cell’s existence. They can also use these maps to understand changes in gene interactions caused by diseases like cancer.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Mazhar Adli, explained in a news release:

Mazhar Adli (Josh Barney, UVA Health System)

“This has been a dream for a long time. We are able to image basically any region in the genome that we want, in real time, in living cells. It works beautifully. With the traditional method, which is the gold standard, basically you will never be able to get this kind of data, because you have to kill the cells to get the imaging. But here we are doing it in live cells and in real time.”

Additionally, this new technique helps scientists conceptualize the position of genes in a 3D rather than in a linear fashion.

“We have two meters of DNA folded into a nucleus that is so tiny that 10,000 of them will fit onto the tip of a needle,” Adli explained. “We know that DNA is not linear but forms these loops, these large, three-dimensional loops. We want to basically image those kind of interactions and get an idea of how the genome is organized in three-dimensional space, because that’s functionally important.”

Not only can this CRISPR technology light up specific genes of interest, but it can also turn their activity on or off, allowing the scientists to observe the effects of one gene’s activity on others. The flexibility of this approach for visualizing genes in live cells is something that the research world currently lacks.

“We were told we would never be able to do this. There are some approaches that let you look at three-dimensional organization. But you do that experiment on hundreds of millions of cells, and you have to kill them to do it. Here, we can look at the single-cell level, and the cell is still alive, and we can take movies of what’s happening inside.”

This is a pretty nifty imaging tool for scientists that allows them to watch where genes are located and how they move as a cell develops and matures. Live-streaming the components of the genetic engine that keeps a cell running could also provide new insights into why certain genetic diseases occur and potentially open doors for developing better treatments.

Scientists tracked specific genomic locations in a living cell over time using their CRISPR/Cas9 technology. (Nature communications)

The Spanish Inquisition and a tale of two stem cell agencies


Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch: Photo courtesy Daily Mail UK

It’s not often an article on stem cell research brings the old, but still much loved, British comedy series Monty Python into the discussion but a new study in the journal Cell Stem Cell does just that, comparing the impact of CIRM and the UK’s Regenerative Medicine Platform (UKRMP).

The article, written by Fiona Watt of King’s College London and Stanford’s Irv Weissman (a CIRM grantee – you can see his impressive research record here) looks at CIRM and UKRMP’s success in translating stem cell research into clinical applications in people.

It begins by saying that in research, as in real estate, location is key:

“One thing that is heavily influenced by location, however, is our source of funding. This in turn depends on the political climate of the country in which we work, as exemplified by research on stem cells.”

And, as Weissman and Watt note, political climate can have a big impact on that funding. CIRM was created by the voters of California in 2004, largely in response to President George W. Bush’s restrictions on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. UKRMP, in contrast was created by the UK government in 2013 and designed to help strengthen the UK’s translational research sector. CIRM was given $3 billion to do its work. UKRMP has approximately $38 million.

Inevitably the two agencies took very different approaches to funding, shaped in part by the circumstances of their birth – one as a largely independent state agency, the other created as a tool of national government.

CIRM, by virtue of its much larger funding was able to create world-class research facilities, attract top scientists to California and train a whole new generation of scientists. It has also been able to help some of the most promising projects get into clinical trials. UKRMP has used its more limited funding to create research hubs, focusing on areas such as cell behavior, differentiation and manufacturing, and safety and effectiveness. Those hubs are encouraged to work collaboratively, sharing their expertise and best practices.

Weissman and Watt touch on the problems both agencies ran into, including the difficulty of moving even the best research out of the lab and into clinical trials:

“Although CIRM has moved over 20 projects into clinical trials most are a long way from becoming standard therapies. This is not unexpected, as the interval between discovery and FDA approved therapeutic via clinical trials is in excess of 10 years minimum.”


And here is where Monty Python enters the picture. The authors quote one of the most famous lines from the series: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – because our chief weapon is surprise.”

They use that to highlight the surprises and uncertainty that stem cell research has gone through in the more than ten years since CIRM was created. They point out that a whole category of cells, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, didn’t exist until 2006; and that few would have predicted the use of gene/stem cell therapy combinations. The recent development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology shows the field is progressing at a rate and in directions that are hard to predict; a reminder that that researchers and funding agencies should continue to expect the unexpected.

With two such different agencies the authors wisely resist the temptation to make any direct comparisons as to their success but instead conclude:

“…both CIRM and UKRMP have similar goals but different routes (and funding) to achieving them. Connecting people to work together to move regenerative medicine into the clinic is an over-arching objective and one that, we hope, will benefit patients regardless of where they live.”