Deep dive into muscle repair yields new strategies to combat Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Researchers at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) reported new findings this week that may lead to novel therapeutic strategies for people suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). DMD, a muscle-wasting disease that affects 1 in 7250 males aged 5 to 24 years in the United States, is caused by a genetic mutation leading to the lack of a protein called dystrophin. Without dystrophin, muscle cells become fragile and are easily damaged. Instead of self-repair, the muscles are replaced by scar tissue, a process called fibrosis that leads to muscle degeneration and wasting.

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Dystrophin, a protein that maintains the structural integrity of muscle fibers, is missing in people with DMD. Image credit: Khan Academy

Boys with DMD first show signs of muscle weakness between ages 3-5 and often stop walking by the time they’re teenagers. Eventually the muscles critical for breathing and heart function stop working. Average life expectancy is 26 and there is no cure.

The SBP scientists are aiming to treat DMD by boosting muscle repair in affected individuals. But to do that, they sought to better understand how muscle regeneration works in the first place. In the current study, they focused their efforts on so-called fibro/adipogenic precursor (FAP) cells which, in response to acute injury, appear to play a role in stimulating muscle stem cells to divide and replace damaged muscle in healthy individuals. But FAPs are also implicated in the muscle wasting and scarring that’s seen in DMD.

By examining the gene activity of single FAP cells from mouse models of acute injury and DMD, the researchers identified a sub-population of FAP cells (sub-FAPs). Further study of these sub-FAPs showed that during early stages of muscle regeneration, these cells promote muscle stem cell activation but then at later stages, sub-FAPs – identified by a cell surface protein called Vcam1 – stimulate fibrosis. It turns out that during healthy acute muscle injury, the sub-FAPs with cell-surface Vcam1 protein are readily eaten up and removed by immune cells thereby avoiding muscle fibrosis. But in the DMD mouse model, removal of these sub-FAPs is impaired and instead collagen deposits and muscle fibrosis occur which are hallmarks of the progressive degeneration seen in DMD.

Barbora Malecova, Ph.D., a first author of the study, explained the implications of these results in a press release:

“This study elucidates the cellular and molecular pathogenesis of muscular dystrophy. These results indicate that removing or modulating the activity of Vcam1-positive sub-FAPs, which promote fibrosis, could be an effective treatment for DMD.”

The lab, led by Pier Lorenzo Puri, M.D., next will explore the possibility of finding drugs that target the Vcam1 sub-FAPs which in turn could help prevent fibrosis in DMD.

The study, funded in part by CIRM, appears in Nature Communications. CIRM is also funding a Phase 2 clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy that aims to improve the life-threatening heart muscle degeneration that occurs in DMD patients.

Using heart stem cells to help boys battling a deadly disorder

 

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Caleb Sizemore, a young man with DMD, speaks to the CIRM Board about his treatment in the Capricor clinical trial.

It’s hard to imagine how missing just one tiny protein can have such a devastating impact on a person. But with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) the lack of a single protein called dystrophin has deadly consequences. Now a new study is offering hope we may be able to help people with this rare genetic disorder.

DMD is a muscle wasting condition that steadily destroys the muscles in the arms and legs, heart and respiratory system. It affects mostly boys and it starts early in life, sometimes as young as 3 years old, and never lets up. By early teens many boys are unable to walk and are in a wheelchair. Their heart and breathing are also affected. In the past most people with DMD didn’t survive their teens. Now it’s more common for them to live into their 20’s and 30’s, but not much beyond that.

Results from a clinical trial being run by Capricor Therapeutics – and funded by CIRM – suggest we may be able to halt, and even reverse, some of the impacts of DMD.

Capricor has developed a therapy called CAP-1002 using cells derived from heart stem cells, called cardiospheres. Boys and young men with DMD who were treated with CAP-1002 experienced what Capricor calls “significant and sustained improvements in cardiac structure and function, as well as skeletal muscle function.”

In a news release Dr. Ronald Victor, a researcher at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and the lead investigator for the trial, said they followed these patients for 12 months after treatment and the results are encouraging:

“Because Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a devastating, muscle-wasting disease that causes physical debilitation and eventually heart failure, the improvements in heart and skeletal muscle in those treated with a single dose of CAP-1002 are very promising and show that a subsequent trial is warranted. These early results provide hope for the Duchenne community, which is in urgent need of a major therapeutic breakthrough.”

According to the 12-month results:

  • 89 percent of patients treated with CAP-1002 showed sustained or improved muscle function compared to untreated patients
  • The CAP-1002 group had improved heart muscle function compared to the untreated group
  • The CAP-1002 group had reduced scarring on their heart compared to the untreated group.

Now, these results are still very early stage and there’s a danger in reading too much into them. However, the fact that they are sustained over one year is a promising sign. Also, none of the treated patients experienced any serious side effects from the therapy.

The team at Capricor now plans to go back to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get clearance to launch an even larger study in 2018.

For a condition like DMD, that has no cure and where treatments can simply slow down the progression of the disorder, this is a hopeful start.

Caleb Sizemore is one of the people treated in this trial. You can read his story and listen to him describing the impact of the treatment on his life.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Free Patient Advocate Event in San Diego, and new clues on how to fix muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease

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Stem cell research is advancing so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. That’s one of the reasons we have our Friday roundup, to let you know about some fascinating research that came across our desk during the week that you might otherwise have missed.

Of course, another way to keep up with the latest in stem cell research is to join us for our free Patient Advocate Event at UC San Diego next Thursday, April 20th from 12-1pm.  We are going to talk about the progress being made in stem cell research, the problems we still face and need help in overcoming, and the prospects for the future.

We have four great speakers:

  • Catriona Jamieson, Director of the CIRM UC San Diego Alpha Stem Cell Clinic and an expert on cancers of the blood
  • Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Chair of CIRM’s Board
  • Jennifer Briggs Braswell, Executive Director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center
  • David Higgins, Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s on the CIRM Board

We will give updates on the exciting work taking place at UCSD and the work that CIRM is funding. We have also set aside some time to get your thoughts on how we can improve the way we work and, of course, answer your questions.

What: Stem Cell Therapies and You: A Special Patient Advocate Event

When: Thursday, April 20th 12-1pm

Where: The Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, 2880 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037

Why: Because the people of California have a right to know how their money is helping change the face of regenerative medicine

Who: This event is FREE and open to everyone.

We have set up an EventBrite page for you to RSVP and let us know if you are coming. And, of course, feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested.

This is the first of a series of similar Patient Advocate Update meetings we plan on holding around California this year. We’ll have news on other locations and dates shortly.

 

Fixing a mutation that causes muscular dystrophy (Karen Ring)

It’s easy to take things for granted. Take your muscles for instance. How often do you think about them? (Don’t answer this if you’re a body builder). Daily? Monthly? I honestly don’t think much about my muscles unless I’ve injured them or if they’re sore from working out.

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Heart muscle cells (green) that don’t have dystrophin protein (Photo; UT Southwestern)

But there are people in this world who think about their muscles or their lack of them every day. They are patients with a muscle wasting disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). It’s the most common type of muscular dystrophy, and it affects mainly young boys – causing their muscles to progressively weaken to the point where they cannot walk or breathe on their own.

DMD is caused by mutations in the dystrophin gene. These mutations prevent muscle cells from making dystrophin protein, which is essential for maintaining muscle structure. Scientists are using gene editing technologies to find and fix these mutations in hopes of curing patients of DMD.

Last year, we blogged about a few of these studies where different teams of scientists corrected dystrophin mutations using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in human cells and in mice with DMD. One of these teams has recently followed up with a new study that builds upon these earlier findings.

Scientists from UT Southwestern are using an alternative form of the CRISPR gene editing complex to fix dystrophin mutations in both human cells and mice. This alternative CRISPR complex makes use of a different cutting enzyme, Cpf1, in place of the more traditionally used Cas9 protein. It’s a smaller protein that the scientists say can get into muscle cells more easily. Cpf1 also differs from Cas9 in what DNA nucleotide sequences it recognizes and latches onto, making it a new tool in the gene editing toolbox for scientists targeting DMD mutations.

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Gene-edited heart muscle cells (green) that now express dystrophin protein (Photo: UT Southwestern)

Using CRISPR/Cpf1, the scientists corrected the most commonly found dystrophin mutation in human induced pluripotent stem cells derived from DMD patients. They matured these corrected stem cells into heart muscle cells in the lab and found that they expressed the dystrophin protein and functioned like normal heart cells in a dish. CRISPR/Cpf1 also corrected mutations in DMD mice, which rescued dystrophin expression in their muscle tissues and some of the muscle wasting symptoms caused by the disease.

Because the dystrophin gene is one of the longest genes in our genome, it has more locations where DMD-causing mutations could occur. The scientists behind this study believe that CRISPR/Cpf1 offers a more flexible tool for targeting different dystrophin mutations and could potentially be used to develop an effective gene therapy for DMD.

Senior author on the study, Dr. Eric Olson, provided this conclusion about their research in a news release by EurekAlert:

“CRISPR-Cpf1 gene-editing can be applied to a vast number of mutations in the dystrophin gene. Our goal is to permanently correct the underlying genetic causes of this terrible disease, and this research brings us closer to realizing that end.”

 

A cellular traffic jam is the culprit behind Huntington’s disease (Todd Dubnicoff)

Back in the 1983, the scientific community cheered the first ever mapping of a genetic disease to a specific area on a human chromosome which led to the isolation of the disease gene in 1993. That disease was Huntington’s, an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that typically strikes in a person’s thirties and leads to death about 10 to 15 years later. Because no effective therapy existed for the disease, this discovery of Huntingtin, as the gene was named, was seen as a critical step toward a better understand of Huntington’s and an eventual cure.

But flash forward to 2017 and researchers are still foggy on how mutations in the Huntingtin gene cause Huntington’s. New research, funded in part by CIRM, promises to clear some things up. The report, published this week in Neuron, establishes a connection between mutant Huntingtin and its impact on the transport of cell components between the nucleus and cytoplasm.

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The pores in the nuclear envelope allows proteins and molecules to pass between a cell’s nucleus and it’s cytoplasm. Image: Blausen.com staff (2014).

To function smoothly, a cell must be able to transport proteins and molecules in and out of the nucleus through holes called nuclear pores. The research team – a collaboration of scientists from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Florida and UC Irvine – found that in nerve cells, the mutant Huntingtin protein clumps up and plays havoc on the nuclear pore structure which leads to cell death. The study was performed in fly and mouse models of HD, in human HD brain samples as well as HD patient nerve cells derived with the induced pluripotent stem cell technique – all with this same finding.

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Huntington’s disease is caused by the loss of a nerve cells called medium spiny neurons. Image: Wikimedia commons

By artificially producing more of the proteins that make up the nuclear pores, the damaging effects caused by the mutant Huntingtin protein were reduced. Similar results were seen using drugs that help stabilize the nuclear pore structure. The implications of these results did not escape George Yohrling, a senior director at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, who was not involved in the study. Yohrling told Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn:

“This is very exciting research because we didn’t know what mutant genes or proteins were doing in the body, and this points to new areas to target research. Scientists, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies could capitalize on this and maybe develop therapies for this biological process”,

It’s important to temper that excitement with a reality check on how much work is still needed before the thought of clinical trials can begin. Researchers still don’t understand why the mutant protein only affects a specific type of nerve cells and it’s far from clear if these drugs would work or be safe to use in the context of the human brain.

Still, each new insight is one step in the march toward a cure.

Family ties help drive UCLA’s search for a stem cell treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

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April Pyle, Courtney Young and Melissa Spencer: Photo courtesy UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

People get into science for all sorts of different reasons. For Courtney Young the reason was easy; she has a cousin with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Now her work as part of a team at UCLA has led to a new approach that could eventually help many of those suffering from Duchenne, the most common fatal childhood genetic disease.

The disease, which usually affects boys, leads to progressive muscle weakness, which means children may lose their ability to walk by age 12 and eventually results in breathing difficulties and heart disease.

Duchenne is caused by a defective gene, which leads to very low levels of a protein called dystrophin – an important element in building strong, healthy muscles. There are many sections of the gene where this defect or mutation can be found, but in 60 percent of cases it occurs within one particular hot spot of DNA. That’s the area that the UCLA team focused on, helped in part by a grant from CIRM.

Skin in the game

First they obtained skin cells from people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and turned those into iPS cells. Those cells have the ability to become any other cell in the body and, just as importantly for this research, still retain the genetic code from the person they came from. In this case it meant they still had the genetic defect that led to Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Then the researchers used a gene editing tool called CRISPR (we’ve written about this a lot in the past, you can a couple of those articles  here and here  and here)  to remove the genetic mutations that cause Duchenne. They then turned those iPS cells into skeletal muscle cells and transplanted them into mice that had the genetic mutation that meant they couldn’t produce dystrophin.

To their delight they found that the transplanted cells produced dystrophin in the mice.

Breaking new ground

April Pyle, a co-senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Cell Stem Cell,  said, in a news release, this was the first study to use human iPS cells to correct the problem in muscle tissue caused by Duchenne:

“This work demonstrates the feasibility of using a single gene editing platform, plus the regenerative power of stem cells to correct genetic mutations and restore dystrophin production for 60 percent of Duchenne patients.”

The researchers say this is an important step towards developing a new treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but caution there are still many years of work before this approach will be ready to test in people.

For Courtney Young advancing the science is not just professionally gratifying, it’s also personally satisfying:

“I already knew I was interested in science, so after my cousin’s diagnosis, I decided to dedicate my career to finding a cure for Duchenne. It makes everything a lot more meaningful, knowing that I’m doing something to help all the boys who will come after my cousin. I feel like I’m contributing and I’m excited because the field of Duchenne research is advancing in a really positive direction.”

 

 

Stem cells could offer hope for deadly childhood muscle wasting disease

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a particularly nasty rare and fatal disease. It predominantly affects boys, slowly robbing them of their ability to control their muscles. By 10 years of age, boys with DMD start to lose the ability to walk; by 12, most need a wheelchair to get around. Eventually they become paralyzed, and need round-the-clock care.

There are no effective long-term treatments and the average life expectancy is just 25.

Crucial discovery

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DMD Research team: Photo courtesy Ottawa Hospital Research Inst.

But now researchers in Canada have made a discovery that could pave the way to new approaches to treating DMD. In a study published in the journal Nature Medicine, they show that DMD is caused by defective muscle stem cells.

In a news release Dr. Michael Rudnicki, senior author of the study, says this discovery is completely changing the way they think about the condition:

“For nearly 20 years, we’ve thought that the muscle weakness observed in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy is primarily due to problems in their muscle fibers, but our research shows that it is also due to intrinsic defects in the function of their muscle stem cells. This completely changes our understanding of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and could eventually lead to far more effective treatments.”

Loss and confused

DMD is caused by a genetic mutation that results in the loss of a protein called dystrophin. Rudnicki and his team found that without dystrophin muscle stem cells – which are responsible for repairing damage after injury – produce far fewer functional muscle fibers. The cells are also confused about where they are:

“Muscle stem cells that lack dystrophin cannot tell which way is up and which way is down. This is crucial because muscle stem cells need to sense their environment to decide whether to produce more stem cells or to form new muscle fibers. Without this information, muscle stem cells cannot divide properly and cannot properly repair damaged muscle.”

While the work was done in mice the researchers are confident it will also apply to humans, as the missing protein is almost identical in all animals.

Next steps

The researchers are already looking for ways they can use this discovery to develop new treatments for DMD, hopefully one day turning it from a fatal condition, to a chronic one.

Dr. Ronald Worton, the co-discoverer of the DMD gene in 1987, says this discovery has been a long-time coming but is both welcome and exciting:

“When we discovered the gene for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, there was great hope that we would be able to develop a new treatment fairly quickly. This has been much more difficult than we initially thought, but Dr. Rudnicki’s research is a major breakthrough that should renew hope for researchers, patients and families.”

In this video CIRM grantee, Dr. Helen Blau from Stanford University, talks about a new mouse model created by her lab that more accurately mimics the Duchenne symptoms observed in people. This opens up opportunities to better understand the disease and to develop new therapies.