Stem cell stories that caught our eye: skin grafts fight diabetes, reprogramming the immune system, and Asterias expands spinal cord injury trial sites

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week.

Skin grafts fight diabetes and obesity.

An interesting new gene therapy strategy for fighting type 1 diabetes and obesity surfaced this week. Scientists from the University of Chicago made genetically engineered skin grafts that secrete a peptide hormone called glucagon-liked peptide-1 (GLP-1). This peptide is released by cells in the intestine and can lower blood sugar levels by stimulating pancreatic islet cells to secrete insulin (a hormone that promotes the absorption of glucose from the blood).

The study, which was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, used CRISPR gene editing technology to introduce a mutation to the GLP-1 gene in mouse and human skin stem cells. This mutation stabilized the GLP-1 peptide, allowing it to hang around in the blood for longer. The team matured these stem cells into skin grafts that secreted the GLP-1 into the bloodstream of mice when treated with a drug called doxycycline.

When fed a high-fat diet, mice with a skin graft (left), genetically altered to secrete GLP-1 in response to the antibiotic doxycycline, gained less weight than normal mice (right). (Image source: Wu Laboratory, the University of Chicago)

On a normal diet, mice that received the skin graft saw a rise in their insulin levels and a decrease in their blood glucose levels, proving that the gene therapy was working. On a high fat diet, mice with the skin graft became obese, but when they were treated with doxycycline, GLP-1 secreted from their grafts reduced the amount of weight gain. So not only does their engineered skin graft technology look like a promising new strategy to treat type 1 diabetes patients, it also could be used to control obesity. The beauty of the technology is in its simplicity.

An article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News that covered this research explained that Xiaoyang Wu, the senior author on the study, and his team “worked with skin because it is a large organ and easily accessible. The cells multiply quickly and are easily transplanted. And, transplanted cells can be removed, if needed. “Skin is such a beautiful system,” Wu says, noting that its features make it a perfect medium for testing gene therapies.”

Wu concluded that, “This kind of therapy could be potentially effective for many metabolic disorders.” According to GenBio, Wu’s team “is now testing the gene-therapy technique in combination with other medications.” They also hope that a similar strategy could be used to treat patients that can’t make certain proteins like in the blood clotting disorder hemophilia.

How to reprogram your immune system (Kevin McCormack)

When your immune system goes wrong it can cause all manner of problems, from type 1 diabetes to multiple sclerosis and cancer. That’s because an overactive immune system causes the body to attack its own tissues, while an underactive one leaves the body vulnerable to outside threats such as viruses. That’s why scientists have long sought ways to correct those immune dysfunctions.

Now researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco think they have found a way to reprogram specific cells in the immune system and restore a sense of health and balance to the body. Their findings are published in the journal Nature.

The researchers identified a drug that targets effector T cells, which get our immune system to defend us against outside threats, and turns them into regulatory T cells, which control our immune system and stops it from attacking our own body.

Why would turning one kind of T cell into another be helpful? Well, in some autoimmune diseases, the effector T cells become overly active and attack healthy tissues and organs, damaging and even destroying them. By converting them to regulatory T cells you can prevent that happening.

In addition, some cancers can hijack regulatory T cells and suppress the immune system, allowing the disease to spread. By turning those cells into effector T cells, you can boost the immune system and give it the strength to fight back and, hopefully, kill the cancer.

In a news release, Gladstone Senior Investigator Sheng Ding, the lead scientists on the study, said their findings could have several applications:

“Our findings could have a significant impact on the treatment of autoimmune diseases, as well as on stem cell and immuno-oncology therapies.” 

Gladstone scientists Sheng Ding (right) and Tao Xu (left) discovered how to reprogram cells in our immune system. (Gladstone Institutes)

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial expands clinical sites

We have another update from CIRM’s clinical trial front. Asterias Biotherapeutics, which is testing a stem cell treatment for complete cervical (neck) spinal cord injury, is expanding its clinical sites for its CIRM-funded SCiStar Phase 1/2a trial. The company is currently treating patients at six sites in the US, and will be expanding to include two additional sites at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and the UC San Diego Medical Center, which is part of the UCSD Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic.

In a company news release, Ed Wirth, Chief Medical Officer of Asterias said,

Ed Wirth

“We are excited about the clinical site openings at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and UC San Diego Health. These sites provide additional geographical reach and previous experience with spinal cord injury trials to our SCiStar study. We have recently reported completion of enrollment in four out of five cohorts in our SCiStar study so we hope these institutions will also participate in a future, larger study of AST-OPC1.”

The news release also gave a recap of the trial’s positive (but still preliminary) results this year and their plans for completing trial enrollment.

“In June 2017, Asterias reported 9 month data from the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort that showed improvements in arm, hand and finger function observed at 3-months and 6-months following administration of AST-OPC1 were confirmed and in some patients further increased at 9-months. The company intends to complete enrollment of the entire SCiStar study later this year, with multiple safety and efficacy readouts anticipated during the remainder of 2017 and 2018.”

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Scientists fix heart disease mutation in human embryos using CRISPR

Last week the scientific community was buzzing with the news that US scientists had genetically modified human embryos using CRISPR gene editing technology. While the story broke before the research was published, many journalists and news outlets weighed in on the study’s findings and the ethical implications they raise. We covered this initial burst of news in last week’s stem cell stories that caught our eye.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov (Leah Nash, New York Times)

After a week of suspense, the highly-anticipated study was published yesterday in the journal Nature. The work was led by senior author Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health and Sciences University (and a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of experts who review applications to us for funding) in collaboration with scientists from the Salk Institute and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science.

In brief, the study revealed that the teams’ CRISPR technology could correct a genetic mutation that causes a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) in 72% of human embryos without causing off-target effects, which are unwanted genome modifications caused by CRISPR. These findings are a big improvement over previous studies by other groups that had issues with off-target effects and mosaicism, where CRISPR only correctly modifies mutations in some but not all cells in an embryo.

Newly fertilized eggs before gene editing, left, and embryos after gene editing and a few rounds of cell division. (Image from Shoukrat Mitalipov in New York Times)

Mitalipov spoke to STATnews about a particularly interesting discovery that he and the other scientists made in the Nature study,

“The main finding is that the CRISPR’d embryos did not accept the “repair DNA” that the scientists expected them to use as a replacement for the mutated gene deleted by CRISPR, which the embryos inherited from their father. Instead, the embryos used the mother’s version of the gene, called the homologue.”

Sharon Begley, the author of the STATnews article, argued that this discovery means that “designer babies” aren’t just around the corner.

“If embryos resist taking up synthetic DNA after CRISPR has deleted an unwanted gene, then “designer babies,” created by inserting a gene for a desirable trait into an embryo, will likely be more difficult than expected.”

Ed Yong from the Atlantic also took a similar stance towards Mitalipov’s study in his article titled “The Designer Baby Era is Not Upon Us”. He wrote,

“The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.”

Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who’s a corresponding author on the paper and a former CIRM grantee from the Salk Institute, commented on the impact that this research could have on human health in a Salk news release.

Co-authors Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and Jun Wu. (Salk Institute)

“Thanks to advances in stem cell technologies and gene editing, we are finally starting to address disease-causing mutations that impact potentially millions of people. Gene editing is still in its infancy so even though this preliminary effort was found to be safe and effective, it is crucial that we continue to proceed with the utmost caution, paying the highest attention to ethical considerations.”

Pam Belluck from The New York Times also suggested that this research could have a significant impact on how we prevent disease in newborns.

“This research marks a major milestone and, while a long way from clinical use, it raises the prospect that gene editing may one day protect babies from a variety of hereditary conditions.”

So when will the dawn of CRISPR babies arrive? Ed Yong took a stab at answering this million dollar question with help from experts in the field.

“Not for a while. The technique would need to be refined, tested on non-human primates, and shown to be safe. “The safety studies would likely take 10 to 15 years before FDA or other regulators would even consider allowing clinical trials,” wrote bioethicist Hank Greely in a piece for Scientific American. “The Mitalipov research could mean that moment is 9 years and 10 months away instead of 10 years, but it is not close.” In the meantime, Mitalipov’s colleague Sanjiv Kaul says, “We’ll get the method to perfection so that when it’s possible to use it in a clinical trial, we can.”

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: CRISPRing Human Embryos, brain stem cells slow aging & BrainStorm ALS trial joins CIRM Alpha Clinics

Here are the stem cell stories that caught our eye this week. Enjoy!

Scientists claim first CRISPR editing of human embryos in the US.

Here’s the big story this week. Scientists from Portland, Oregon claim they genetically modified human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. While their results have yet to be published in a peer review journal (though the team say they are going to be published in a prominent journal next month), if they prove true, the study will be the first successful attempt to modify human embryos in the US.

A representation of an embryo being fertilized. Scientists can inject CRISPR during fertilization to correct genetic disorders. (Getty Images).

Steve Connor from MIT Technology Review broke the story earlier this week noting that the only reports of human embryo modification were published by Chinese scientists. The China studies revealed troubling findings. CRISPR caused “off-target” effects, a situation where the CRISPR machinery randomly introduces genetic errors in a cell’s DNA, in the embryos. It also caused mosaicism, a condition where the desired DNA sequences aren’t genetically corrected in all the cells of an embryo producing an individual with cells that have different genomes. Putting aside the ethical conundrum of modifying human embryos, these studies suggested that current gene editing technologies weren’t accurate enough to safely modify human embryos.

But a new chapter in human embryo modification is beginning. Shoukhrat Mitalipov (who is a member of CIRM’s Grants Working Group, the panel of scientific experts that reviews our funding applications) and his team from the Oregon Health and Science University said that they have developed a method to successfully modify donated human embryos that avoids the problems experienced by the Chinese scientists. The team found that introducing CRISPR at the same time an embryo was being fertilized led to successful correction of disease-causing mutations while avoiding mosaicism and “off-target” effects. They grew these embryos for a few days to confirm that the genetic modifications had worked before destroying them.

The MIT piece quoted a scientist who knows of Mitalipov’s work,

“It is proof of principle that it can work. They significantly reduced mosaicism. I don’t think it’s the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before.”

Does this discovery, if it’s true, open the door further for the creation of designer babies? For discussions about the future scientific and ethical implications of this research, I recommend reading Paul Knoepfler’s blog, this piece by Megan Molteni in Wired Magazine and Jessica Berg’s article in The Conversation.

Brain stem cells slow aging in mice

The quest for eternal youth might be one step closer thanks to a new study published this week in the journal Nature. Scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York discovered that stem cells found in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus can slow the aging process in mice.

The hypothalamus is located smack in the center of your brain near the brain stem. It’s responsible for essential metabolic functions such as making and secreting hormones, managing body temperature and controlling feelings of hunger and thirst. Because the body’s metabolic functions decline with age, scientists have suspected that the hypothalamus plays a role in aging.

The mouse hypothalamus. (NIH, Wikimedia).

In the current study, the team found that stem cells in the hypothalamus gradually disappear as mice age. They were curious whether the disappearance of these stem cells could jump start the aging process. When they removed these stem cells, the mice showed more advanced mental and physical signs of aging compared to untreated mice.

They also conducted the opposite experiment where they transplanted hypothalamic stem cells taken from baby mice (the idea being that these stem cells would exhibit more “youthful” qualities) into the brains of middle-aged mice and saw improvements in mental and physical functions and a 10% increase in lifespan.

So what is it about these specific stem cells that slows down aging? Do they replenish the aging brain with new healthy cells or do they secrete factors that keep the brain healthy? Interestingly, the scientists found that these stem cells secreted vesicles that contained microRNAs, which are molecules that regulate gene expression by turning genes on or off.

They injected these microRNAs into the brains of middle-aged mice and found that they reversed symptoms of aging including cognitive decline and muscle degeneration. Furthermore, when they removed hypothalamic stem cells from middle-aged mice and treated them with the microRNAs, they saw the same anti-aging effects.

In an interview with Nature News, senior author on the study, Dongsheng Cai, commented that hypothalamic stem cells could have multiple ways of regulating aging and that microRNAs are just one of their tools. For this research to translate into an anti-aging therapy, “Cai suspects that anti-ageing therapies targeting the hypothalamus would need to be administered in middle age, before a person’s muscles and metabolism have degenerated beyond a point that could be reversed.”

This study and its “Fountain of Youth” implications has received ample attention from the media. You can read more coverage from The Scientist, GenBio, and the original Albert Einstein press release.

BrainStorm ALS trial joins the CIRM Alpha Clinics

Last month, the CIRM Board approved $15.9 million in funding for BrainStorm Cell Therapeutic’s Phase 3 trial that’s testing a stem cell therapy to treat patients with a devastating neurodegenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The stem cell therapy, called NurOwn®, is made of mesenchymal stem cells extracted from a patient’s bone marrow. The stem cells are genetically modified to secrete neurotrophic factors that keep neurons in the brain healthy and prevent their destruction by diseases like ALS.

BrainStorm has tested NurOwn in early stage clinical trials in Israel and in a Phase 2 study in the US. These trials revealed that the treatment was “safe and well tolerated” and that “NurOwn also achieved multiple secondary efficacy endpoints, showing clear evidence of a clinically meaningful benefit.  Notably, response rates were higher for NurOwn-treated subjects compared to placebo at all time points in the study out to 24 weeks.”

This week, BrainStorm announced that it will launch its Phase 3 CIRM-funded trial at the UC Irvine (UCI) CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic. The Alpha Clinics are a network of top medical centers in California that specialize in delivering high quality stem cell clinical trials to patients. UCI is one of four medical centers including UCLA, City of Hope, and UCSD, that make up three Alpha Clinics currently supporting 38 stem cell trials in the state.

Along with UCI, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will also be conducted at two other sites in the US: Mass General Hospital in Boston and California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Chaim Lebovits, President and CEO, commented,

“We are privileged to have UCI and Dr. Namita Goyal join our pivotal Phase 3 study of NurOwn. Adding UCI as an enrolling center with Dr. Goyal as Principal Investigator will make the treatment more accessible to patients in California, and we welcome the opportunity to work with this prestigious institution.”

Before the Phase 3 trial can launch at UCI, it needs to be approved by our federal regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is an independent ethics committee that reviews biomedical research on human subjects. Both these steps are required to ensure that a therapy is safe to test in patients.

With promising data from their Phase 1 and 2 trials, BrainStorm’s Phase 3 trial will likely get the green light to move forward. Dr. Goyal, who will lead the trial at the UCI Alpha Clinic, concluded:

“NurOwn is a very promising treatment with compelling Phase 2 data in patients with ALS; we look forward to further advancing it in clinical development and confirming the therapeutic benefit with Brainstorm.”

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)

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: glowing stem cells and new insights into Zika and SCID

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Glowing stem cells help scientists understand how cells work. (Karen Ring)
It’s easy to notice when something is going wrong. It’s a lot harder to notice when something is going right. The same thing can be said for biology. Scientists dedicate their careers to studying unhealthy cells, trying to understand why people get certain diseases and what’s going wrong at the cellular level to cause these problems. But there is a lot to be said for doing scientific research on healthy cells so that we can better understand what’s happening when cells start to malfunction.

A group from the Allen Institute for Cell Science is doing just this. They used a popular gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically modify human stem cell lines so that certain parts inside the cell will glow different colors when observed under a fluorescent microscope. Specifically, the scientists inserted the genetic code to produce fluorescent proteins in both the nucleus and the mitochondria of the stem cells. The final result is a tool that allows scientists to study how stem cells specialize into mature cells in various tissues and organs.

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

Glowing human stem cells. The edges of the cells are shown in purple while the DNA in the cell’s nucleus is in blue. (Allen Institute for Cell Science).

The director of stem cells and gene editing at the Allen Institute, Ruwanthi Gunawardane, explained how their technology improves upon previous methods for getting cells to glow in an interview with Forbes:

 “We’re trying to understand how the cell behaves, how it functions, but flooding it with some external protein can really mess it up. The CRISPR system allows us to go into the DNA—the blueprint—and insert a gene that allows the cell to express the protein in its normal environment. Then, through live imaging, we can watch the cell and understand how it works.”

The team has made five of these glowing stem cell lines available for use by the scientific community through the Coriell Institute for Medical Research (which also works closely with the CIRM iPSC Initiative). Each cell line is unique and has a different cellular structure that glows. You can learn more about these cell lines on the Coriell Allen Institute webpage and by watching this video:

 

Zika can take multiple routes to infect a child’s brain. (Kevin McCormack)
One of the biggest health stories of 2016 has been the rapid, indeed alarming, spread of the Zika virus. It went from an obscure virus to a global epidemic found in more than 70 countries.

The major concern about the virus is its ability to cause brain defects in the developing brain. Now researchers at Harvard have found that it can do this in more ways than previously believed.

Up till now, it was believed that Zika does its damage by grabbing onto a protein called AXL on the surface of brain cells called neural progenitor cells (NPCs). However, the study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, showed that even when AXL was blocked, Zika still managed to infiltrate the brain.

Using induced pluripotent stem cell technology, the researchers were able to create NPCs and then modify them so they had no AXL expression. That should, in theory, have been able to block the Zika virus. But when they exposed those cells to the virus they found they were infected just as much as ordinary brain cells exposed to the virus were.

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

Caption: Zika virus (light blue) spreads through a three-dimensional model of a developing brain. Image by Max Salick and Nathaniel Kirkpatrick/Novartis

In a story in the Harvard Gazette, Kevin Eggan, one of the lead researchers, said this shows scientists need to re-think their approach to countering the virus:

“Our finding really recalibrates this field of research because it tells us we still have to go and find out how Zika is getting into these cells.”

 

Treatment for a severe form of bubble baby disease appears on the horizon. (Todd Dubnicoff)
Without treatment, kids born with bubble baby disease typically die before reaching 12 months of age. Formally called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), this genetic blood disorder leaves infants without an effective immune system and unable to fight off even minor infections. A bone marrow stem cell transplant from a matched sibling can treat the disease but this is only available in less than 20 percent of cases and other types of donors carry severe risks.

In what is shaping up to be a life-changing medical breakthrough, a UCLA team has developed a stem cell/gene therapy treatment that corrects the SCID mutation. Over 40 patients have participated to date with a 100% survival rate and CIRM has just awarded the team $20 million to continue clinical trials.

There’s a catch though: other forms of SCID exist. The therapy described above treats SCID patients with a mutation in a gene responsible for producing a protein called ADA. But an inherited mutation in another gene called Artemis, leads to a more severe form of SCID. These Artemis-SCID infants have even less success with a standard bone marrow transplant compared to those with ADA-SCID. Artemis plays a role in DNA damage repair something that occurs during the chemo and radiation therapy sessions that are often necessary for blood marrow transplants. So Artemis-SCID patients are hyper-sensitive to the side of effects of standard treatments.

A recent study by UCSF scientists in Human Gene Therapy, funded in part by CIRM, brings a lot of hope to these Artemis-SCID patient. Using a similar stem cell/gene therapy method, this team collected blood stem cells from the bone marrow of mice with a form of Artemis-SCID. Then they added a good copy of the human Artemis gene to these cells. Transplanting the blood stem cells back to mice, restored their immune systems which paves the way for delivering this approach to clinic to also help the Artemis-SCID patients in desperate need of a treatment.

Advancements in gene editing make blind rats see light

Gene editing is a rapidly advancing technology that scientists are using to manipulate the genomes of cells with precision and accuracy. Many of these experiments are being conducted on stem cells to genetic mutations in an attempt to find cures for various diseases like cancer, HIV and blindness.

Speaking of blindness, researchers from the Salk Institute reported today that they’ve improved upon the current CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology and found a more efficient way to edit the genomes of cells in living animals. They used their technology on blind rats that had a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and found that the rats were able to see light following the treatment.

The really exciting part about their findings is that their CRISPR technology works well on dividing cells like stem cells and progenitor cells, which is typically how scientists use the CRISPR technology, but it also works on adult cells that do not divide – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished before.

Their results, which were published today in the journal Nature, offer a new tool that scientists can use to target cells that no longer divide in tissues and organs like the eye, brain, pancreas and heart.

According to a Salk news release:

“The new Salk technology is ten times more efficient than other methods at incorporating new DNA into cultures of dividing cells, making it a promising tool for both research and medicine. But, more importantly, the Salk technique represents the first time scientists have managed to insert a new gene into a precise DNA location in adult cells that no longer divide, such as those of the eye, brain, pancreas or heart, offering new possibilities for therapeutic applications in these cells.”

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

Salk Professor and senior author on the study, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, explained the big picture of their findings:

“We are very excited by the technology we discovered because it’s something that could not be done before. For the first time, we now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver. It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”

If you want to learn more about the science behind their new CRISPR gene editing technology, check out the Salk news release and coverage in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. You can also watch this short three minute video about the study made by the Salk Institute.

Stem Cell Experts Discuss the Ethical Implications of Translating iPSCs to the Clinic

Part of The Stem Cellar blog series on 10 years of iPSCs.

This year, scientists are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Shinya Yamanaka’s Nobel Prize winning discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are cells that are very similar biologically to embryonic stem cells and can develop into any cell in the body. iPSCs are very useful in scientific research for disease modeling, drug screening, and for potential cell therapy applications.

However, with any therapy that involves testing in human patients, there are ethical questions that scientists, companies, and policy makers must consider. Yesterday, a panel of stem cell and bioethics experts at the Cell Symposium 10 Years of iPSCs conference in Berkeley discussed the ethical issues surrounding the translation of iPSC research from the lab bench to clinical trials in patients.

The panel included Shinya Yamanaka (Gladstone Institutes), George Daley (Harvard University), Christine Mummery (Leiden University Medical Centre), Lorenz Studer (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), Deepak Srivastava (Gladstone Institutes), and Bioethicist Hank Greely (Stanford University).

iPSC Ethics Panel

iPSC Ethics Panel at the 10 Years of iPSCs Conference

Below is a summary of what these experts had to say about questions ranging from the ethics of patient and donor consent, genetic modification of iPSCs, designer organs, and whether patients should pay to participate in clinical trials.

How should we address patient or donor consent regarding iPSC banking?

Multiple institutes including CIRM are developing iPSC banks that store thousands of patient-derived iPSC lines, which scientists can use to study disease and develop new therapies. These important cell lines wouldn’t exist without patients who consent to donate their cells or tissue. The first question posed to the panel was how to regulate the consent process.

Christine Mummery began by emphasizing that it’s essential that companies are able to license patient-derived iPSC lines so they don’t have to go back to the patient and inconvenience them by asking for additional samples to make new cell lines.

George Daley and Hank Greely discussed different options for improving the informed consent process. Daley mentioned that the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) recently updated their informed consent guidelines and now provide adaptable informed consent templates that can be used for obtaining many type of materials for human stem cell research.  Daley also mentioned the move towards standardizing the informed consent process through a single video shared by multiple institutions.

Greely agreed that video could be a powerful way to connect with patients by using talented “explainers” to educate patients. But both Daley and Greely cautioned that it’s essential to make sure that patients understand what they are getting involved in when they donate their tissue.

Greely rounded up the conversation by reminding the audience that patients are giving the research field invaluable information so we should consider giving back in return. While we can’t and shouldn’t promise a cure, we can give back in other ways like recognizing the contributions of specific patients or disease communities.

Greely mentioned the resolution with Henrietta Lack’s family as a good example. For more than 60 years, scientists have used a cancer cell line called HeLa cells that were derived from the cervical cancer cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta never gave consent for her cells to be used and her family had no clue that pieces of Henrietta were being studied around the world until years later.

In 2013, the NIH finally rectified this issue by requiring that researchers ask for permission to access Henrietta’s genomic data and to include the Lacks family in their publication acknowledgements.

Hank Greely, Stanford University

Hank Greely, Stanford University

“The Lacks family are quite proud and pleased that their mother, grandmother and great grandmother is being remembered, that they are consulted on various things,” said Hank Greely. “They aren’t making any direct money out of it but they are taking a great deal of pride in the recognition that their family is getting. I think that returning something to patients is a nice thing, and a human thing.”

What are the ethical issues surrounding genome editing of iPSCs?

The conversation quickly focused on the ongoing CRISPR patent battle between the Broad Institute, MIT and UC Berkeley. For those unfamiliar with the technique, CRISPR is a gene editing technology that allows you to cut and paste DNA at precise locations in the genome. CRISPR has many uses in research, but in the context of iPSCs, scientists are using CRISPR to remove disease-causing mutations in patient iPSCs.

George Daley expressed his worry about a potential fallout if the CRISPR battle goes a certain way. He commented, “It’s deeply concerning when such a fundamentally enabling platform technology could be restricted for future gene editing applications.”

The CRISPR patent battle began in 2012 and millions of dollars in legal fees have been spent since then. Hank Greely said that he can’t understand why the Institutes haven’t settled this case already as the costs will only continue to rise, but that it might not matter how the case turns out in the end:

“My guess is that this isn’t ultimately going to be important because people will quickly figure out ways to invent around the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. People have already done it around the Cas9 part and there will probably be ways to do the same thing for the CRISPR part.”

 Christine Mummery finished off with a final point about the potential risk of trying to correct disease causing mutations in patient iPSCs using CRISPR technology. She noted that it’s possible the correction may not lead to an improvement because of other disease-causing genetic mutations in the cells that the patient and their family are unaware of.

 Should patients or donors be paid for their cells and tissue?

Lorenz Studer said he would support patients being paid for donating samples as long as the payment is reasonable, the consent form is clear, and patients aren’t trying to make money off of the process.

Hank Greely said the big issue is with inducement and whether you are paying enough money to convince people to do something they shouldn’t or wouldn’t want to do. He said this issue comes up mainly around reproductive egg donation but not with obtaining simpler tissue samples like skin biopsies. Egg donors are given money because it’s an invasive procedure, but also because a political decision was made to compensate egg donors. Greely predicts the same thing is unlikely to happen with other cell and tissue types.

Christine Mummery’s opinion was that if a patient’s iPSCs are used by a drug company to produce new successful drugs, the patient should receive some form of compensation. But she said it’s hard to know how much to pay patients, and this question was left unanswered by the panel.

Should patients pay to participate in clinical trials?

George Daley said it’s hard to justify charging patients to participate in a Phase 1 clinical trial where the focus is on testing the safety of a therapy without any guarantee that there will be beneficial outcome to the patient. In this case, charging a patient money could raise their expectations and mislead them into thinking they will benefit from the treatment. It would also be unfair because only patients who can afford to pay would have access to trials. Ultimately, he concluded that making patients pay for an early stage trial would corrupt the informed consent process. However, he did say that there are certain, rare contexts that would be highly regulated where patients could pay to participate in trials in an ethical way.

Lorenz Studer said the issue is very challenging. He knows of patients who want to pay to be in trials for treatments they hope will work, but he also doesn’t think that patients should have to pay to be in early stage trials where their participation helps the progress of the therapy. He said the focus should be on enrolling the right patient groups in clinical trials and making sure patients are properly educated about the trial they are participating.

Thoughts on the ethics behind making designer organs from iPSCs?

Deepak Srivastava said that he thinks about this question all the time in reference to the heart:

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

“The heart is basically a pump. When we traditionally thought about whether we could make a human heart, we asked if we could make the same thing with the same shape and design. But in fact, that’s not necessarily the best design – it’s what evolution gave us. What we really need is a pump that’s electrically active. I think going forward, we should remove the constraint of the current design and just think about what would be the best functional structure to do it. But it is definitely messing with nature and what evolution has given us.”

Deepak also said that because every organ is different, different strategies should be used. In the case of the heart, it might be beneficial to convert existing heart tissue into beating heart cells using drugs rather than transplant iPSC-derived heart cells or tissue. For other organs like the pancreas, it is beneficial to transplant stem cell-derived cells. For diabetes, scientists have shown that injecting insulin secreting cells in multiple areas of the body is beneficial to Diabetes patients.

Hank Greely concluded that the big ethical issue of creating stem cell-derived organs is safety. “Biology isn’t the same as design,” Greely said. “It’s really, really complicated. When you put something into a biological organism, the chances that something odd will happen are extremely high. We have to be very careful to avoid making matters worse.”

For more on the 10 years of iPSCs conference, check out the #CSStemCell16 hashtag on twitter.

Funding stem cell research targeting a rare and life-threatening disease in children

cystinosis

Photo courtesy Cystinosis Research Network

If you have never heard of cystinosis you should consider yourself fortunate. It’s a rare condition caused by an inherited genetic mutation. It hits early and it hits hard. Children with cystinosis are usually diagnosed before age 2 and are in end-stage kidney failure by the time they are 9. If that’s not bad enough they also experience damage to their eyes, liver, muscles, pancreas and brain.

The genetic mutation behind the condition results in an amino acid, cystine, accumulating at toxic levels in the body. There’s no cure. There is one approved treatment but it only delays progression of the disease, has some serious side effects of its own, and doesn’t prevent the need for a  kidney transplant.

Researchers at UC San Diego, led by Stephanie Cherqui, think they might have a better approach, one that could offer a single, life-long treatment for the problem. Yesterday the CIRM Board agreed and approved more than $5.2 million for Cherqui and her team to do the pre-clinical testing and work needed to get this potential treatment ready for a clinical trial.

Their goal is to take blood stem cells from people with cystinosis, genetically-modify them and return them to the patient, effectively delivering a healthy, functional gene to the body. The hope is that these genetically-modified blood stem cells will integrate with various body organs and not only replace diseased cells but also rescue them from the disease, making them healthy once again.

In a news release Randy Mills, CIRM’s President and CEO, said orphan diseases like cystinosis may not affect large numbers of people but are no less deserving of research in finding an effective therapy:

“Current treatments are expensive and limited. We want to push beyond and help find a life-long treatment, one that could prevent kidney failure and the need for kidney transplant. In this case, both the need and the science were compelling.”

The beauty of work like this is that, if successful, a one-time treatment could last a lifetime, eliminating or reducing kidney disease and the need for kidney transplantation. But it doesn’t stop there. The lessons learned through research like this might also apply to other inherited multi-organ degenerative disorders.

Here’s a new gene editing strategy to treat genetic blood disorders

If you’re taking a road trip across the country, you have a starting point and an ending point. How you go from point A to point B could be one of a million different routes, but the ultimate outcome is the same: reaching your final destination.

Yesterday scientists from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital published exciting findings in the journal Nature Medicine on a new gene editing strategy that could offer a different route for treating genetic blood disorders such as sickle cell disease (SCD) and b-thalassemia.

The scientists used a gene editing tool called CRISPR. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about CRISPR in the general media as the next, hot technology that could possibly help bring cures for serious diseases.

In simple terms, CRISPR acts as molecular scissors that facilitate cutting and pasting of DNA sequences at specific locations in the genome. For blood diseases like SCD and b-thalassemia, in which blood cells have abnormal hemoglobin, CRISPR gene editing offers ways to turn on and off genes that cause the clinical symptoms of these diseases.

Fetal vs. Adult hemoglobin

Before I get into the meat of this story, let’s take a moment to discuss hemoglobin. What is it? It’s a protein found in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Hemoglobin is made up of different subunits and the composition of these hemoglobin subunits change as newborns develop into adults.

0a448-sicklecellimage

Healthy red blood cell (left), sickle cell (right).

Fetal hemoglobin (HbF) is comprised of a and g subunits while adult hemoglobin (HbA) is typically comprised of a and b subunits. Patients with SCD and b-thalassemia typically have mutations in the b globin gene. In SCD, this causes blood cells to take on an unhealthy, sickle cell shape that can clog vessels and eventually cause premature death. In b-thalassemia, the b-globin gene isn’t synthesized into protein at the proper levels and patients suffer from anemia (low red blood cell count).

One way that scientists are attempting to combat the negative side effects of mutant HbF is to tip the scales towards maintaining expression of the fetal g-globin gene. The idea spawned from individuals with hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin (HPFH), a condition where the hemoglobin composition fails to transition from HbF to HbA, leaving high levels of HbF in adult blood. Individuals who have HPFH and are predisposed to SCD or b-thalassemia amazingly don’t have clinical symptoms, suggesting that HbF plays either a protective or therapeutic role.

The current study is taking advantage of this knowledge in their attempt to treat blood disorders. Mitchell Weiss, senior author on the study and chair of the St. Jude Department of Hematology, explained the thought process behind their study:

“It has been known for some time that individuals with genetic mutations that persistently elevate fetal hemoglobin are resistant to the symptoms of sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, genetic forms of severe anemia that are common in many regions of the world. We have found a way to use CRISPR gene editing to produce similar benefits.”

CRISPRing blood stem cells for therapeutic purposes

Weiss and colleagues engineered red blood cells to have elevated levels of HbF in hopes of preventing symptoms of SCD. They used CRISPR to create a small deletion in a sequence of DNA, called a promoter, that controls expression of the hemoglobin g subunit 1 (HBG1) gene. The deletion elevates the levels of HbF in blood cells and closely mimics genetic mutations found in HPFH patients.

Weiss further explained the genome editing process in a news release:

Mitchell Weiss

Mitchell Weiss

“Our work has identified a potential DNA target for genome editing-mediated therapy and offers proof-of-principle for a possible approach to treat sickle cell and beta-thalassemia. We have been able to snip that DNA target using CRISPR, remove a short segment in a “control section” of DNA that stimulates gamma-to-beta switching, and join the ends back up to produce sustained elevation of fetal hemoglobin levels in adult red blood cells.”

The scientists genetically modified hematopoietic stem cells and blood progenitor cells from healthy individuals to make sure that their CRISPR gene editing technique was successful. After modifying the stem cells, they matured them into red blood cells in the lab and observed that the levels of HbF increased from 5% to 20%.

Encouraged by these results, they tested the therapeutic potential of their CRISPR strategy on hematopoietic stem cells from three SCD patients. While 25% of unmodified SCD blood stem cells developed red blood cells with a sickle cell shape under low-oxygen conditions (to induce stress), CRISPR edited SCD stem cells generated way fewer sickle cells (~4%) and had a higher level of HbF expression.

Many routes, one destination

The authors concluded that their genome editing technique is successful at switching hemoglobin expression from the adult form back to the fetal form. With further studies and safety testing, this strategy could be one day be developed into a treatment for patients with SCD and b-thalassemia

But the authors were also humble in their findings and admitted that there are many different genome editing strategies or routes for developing therapies for inherited blood diseases.

“Our results represent an additional approach to these existing innovative strategies and compare favorably in terms of the levels of fetal hemoglobin that are produced by our experimental system.”

My personal opinion is the more strategies thrown into the pipeline the better. As things go in science, many of these strategies won’t be successful in reaching the final destination of curing one of these diseases, but with more shots on goal, our chances of developing a treatment that works there are a lot higher.


Related links:

The Spanish Inquisition and a tale of two stem cell agencies

Monty

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.”