Last year, we wrote about a CIRM-funded team at UCLA that’s on a mission to develop a stem cell treatment for patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Today, we bring you an exciting update on this research just in time for the holidays (Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and Kwanza to our readers!).
DMD is a deadly muscle wasting disease that primarily affects young boys and young men. The UCLA team is trying to generate better methods for making skeletal muscle cells from pluripotent stem cells to regenerate the muscle tissue that is lost in patients with the condition. DMD is caused by genetic mutations in the dystrophin gene, which codes for a protein that is essential for skeletal muscle function. Without dystrophin protein, skeletal muscles become weak and waste away.
In their previous study, the UCLA team used CRISPR gene editing technology to remove dystrophin mutations in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) made from the skin cells of DMD patients. These corrected iPSCs were then matured into skeletal muscle cells that were transplanted into mice. The transplanted muscle cells successfully produced dystrophin protein – proving for the first time that DMD mutations can be corrected using human iPSCs.
A Step Forward
The team has advanced their research a step forward and published a method for making skeletal muscle cells, from DMD patient iPSCs, that look and function like real skeletal muscle tissue. Their findings, which were published today in the journal Nature Cell Biology, address a longstanding problem in the field: not being able to make stem cell-derived muscle cells that are mature enough to model DMD or to be used for cell replacement therapies.
Dr. April Pyle, senior author on the study and Associate Professor at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA explained in a news release:
“We have found that just because a skeletal muscle cell produced in the lab expresses muscle markers, doesn’t mean it is fully functional. For a stem cell therapy for Duchenne to move forward, we must have a better understanding of the cells we are generating from human pluripotent stem cells compared to the muscle stem cells found naturally in the human body and during the development process.”
By comparing the proteins expressed on the cell surface of human fetal and adult muscle cells, the team identified two proteins, ERBB3 and NGFR, that represented a regenerative population of skeletal muscle cells. They used these two markers to isolate these regenerative muscle cells, but found that the muscle fibers they created in a lab dish were smaller than those found in human muscle.
First author, Michael Hicks, discovered that using a drug to block a human developmental signaling pathway called TGF Beta pushed these ERBB3/NGFR cells past this intermediate stage and allowed them to mature into functional skeletal muscle cells similar to those found in human muscle.
Putting It All Together
In their final experiments, the team combined the new stem cell techniques developed in the current study with their previous work using CRISPR gene editing technology. First, they removed the dystrophin mutations in DMD patient iPSCs using CRISPR. Then, they coaxed the iPSCs into skeletal muscle cells in a dish and isolated the regenerative cells that expressed ERBB3 and NGFR. Mice that lacked the dystrophin protein were then transplanted with these cells and were simultaneously given an injection of a TGF Beta blocking drug.
The results were exciting. The transplanted cells were able to produce human dystrophin and restore the expression of this protein in the Duchenne mice.
Dr. Pyle concluded,
“The results were exactly what we’d hoped. This is the first study to demonstrate that functional muscle cells can be created in a laboratory and restore dystrophin in animal models of Duchenne using the human development process as a guide.”
In the long term, the UCLA team hopes to translate this research into a patient-specific stem cell therapy for DMD patients. In the meantime, the team will use funding from a recent CIRM Quest award to make skeletal muscle cells that can regenerate long-term in response to chronic injury in hopes of developing a more permanent treatment for DMD.