Stem cell stories that caught our eye: lab-grown blood stem cells and puffer fish have the same teeth stem cells as humans

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.

Scientists finally grow blood stem cells in the lab!

Two exciting stem cell studies broke through the politics-dominated headlines this week. Both studies, published in the journal Nature, demonstrated that human hematopoietic or blood stem cells can be grown in the lab.

This news is a big deal because scientists have yet to make bonafide blood stem cells from pluripotent stem cells or other human cells. These stem cells not only create all the cells in our blood and immune systems, but also can be used to develop therapies for patients with blood cancers and genetic blood disorders.

But to do these experiments, you need a substantial source of blood stem cells – something that has eluded scientists for decades. That’s where these two studies come to the rescue. One study was spearheaded by George Daley at the Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts and the other was led by Shahin Rafii at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Researchers have made blood stem cells and progenitor cells from pluripotent stem cells. Credit: Steve Gschmeissner Getty Images

George Daley and his team developed a strategy that matured human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) into blood-forming stem and progenitor cells. It’s a two-step process that first uses a cocktail of chemicals to make hemogenic endothelium, the embryonic tissue that generates blood stem cells. The second step involved treating these intermediate cells with a combination of seven transcription factors that directed them towards a blood stem cell fate.

These modified human blood stem cells were then transplanted into mice where they developed into blood stem cells that produced blood and immune cells. First author on the study, Ryohichi Sugimura, explained the applications that their technology could be used for in a Boston Children’s Hospital news release,

“This step opens up an opportunity to take cells from patients with genetic blood disorders, use gene editing to correct their genetic defect and make functional blood cells. This also gives us the potential to have a limitless supply of blood stem cells and blood by taking cells from universal donors. This could potentially augment the blood supply for patients who need transfusions.”

The second study by Shahin Rafii and his team at Cornell used a different strategy to generate blood-forming stem cells. Instead of genetically manipulating iPS cells, they selected a more mature cell type to directly reprogram into blood stem cells. Using four transcription factors, they successfully reprogrammed mouse endothelial cells, which line the insides of blood vessels, into blood-forming stem cells that repopulated the blood and immune systems of irradiated mice.

Raffii believe his method is simpler and more efficient than Daley’s. In coverage by Nature News, he commented,

“Using the most efficient method to generate stem cells matters because every time a gene is added to a batch of cells, a large portion of the batch fails to incorporate it and must be thrown out. There is also a risk that some cells will mutate after they are modified in the lab, and could form tumors if they are implanted into people.”

To play devil’s advocate, Daley’s technique might appeal more to some because the starting source of iPS cells is much easier to obtain and culture in the lab than endothelial cells that have to be extracted from the blood vessels of animals or people. Furthermore, Daley argued that his team’s method could “be made more efficient, and [is] less likely to spur tumor growth and other abnormalities in modified cells.”

The Nature News article compares the achievements of both studies and concluded,

“Time will determine which approach succeeds. But the latest advances have buoyed the spirits of researchers who have been frustrated by their inability to generate blood stem cells from iPS cells.”

 

Humans and puffer fish have the same tooth-making stem cells.

Here’s a fun fact for your next blind date: humans and puffer fish share the same genes that are responsible for making teeth. Scientists from the University of Sheffield in England discovered that the stem cells that make teeth in puffer fish are the same stem cells that make the pearly whites in humans. Their work was published in the journal PNAS earlier this week.

Puffer fish. Photo by pingpogz on Flickr.

But if you look at this puffer fish, you’ll see a dramatic difference between its smile and ours – their teeth look more like a beak. Research has shown that the tooth-forming stem cells in puffer fish produce tooth plates that form a beak-like structure, which helps them crush and consume their prey.

So why is this shared evolution between humans and puffer fish important when our teeth look and function so differently? The scientists behind this research believe that studying the pufferfish could unearth answers about tooth loss in humans. The lead author on the study, Dr. Gareth Fraser, concluded in coverage by Phys.org,

“Our study questioned how pufferfish make a beak and now we’ve discovered the stem cells responsible and the genes that govern this process of continuous regeneration. These are also involved in general vertebrate tooth regeneration, including in humans. The fact that all vertebrates regenerate their teeth in the same way with a set of conserved stem cells means that we can use these studies in more obscure fishes to provide clues to how we can address questions of tooth loss in humans.”

How Parkinson’s disease became personal for one stem cell researcher

April is Parkinson’s disease Awareness Month. This year the date is particularly significant because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of British apothecary James Parkinson’s “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”, which is now recognized as a seminal work in describing the disease.

Schuele_headshotTo mark the occasion we talked with Dr. Birgitt Schuele, Director Gene Discovery and Stem Cell Modeling at the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center in Sunnyvale, California. Dr. Schuele recently received funding from CIRM for a project using new gene-editing technology to try and halt the progression of Parkinson’s.

 

 

What got you interested in Parkinson’s research?

People ask if I have family members with Parkinson’s because a lot of people get into this research because of a family connection, but I don’t.  I was always excited by neuroscience and how the brain works, and I did my medical residency in neurology and had a great mentor who specialized in the neurogenetics of Parkinson’s. That helped fuel my interest in this area.

I have been in this field for 15 years, and over time I have gotten to know a lot of people with Parkinson’s and they have become my friends, so now I’m trying to find answers and also a cure for Parkinson’s. For me this has become personal.

I have patients that I talk to every couple of months and I can see how their disease is progressing, and especially for people with early or young onset Parkinson’s. It’s devastating. It has a huge effect on the person and their family, and on relationships, even how they have to talk to their kids about their risk of getting the disease themselves. It’s hard to see that and the impact it has on people’s lives. And because Parkinson’s is progressive, I get to see, over the years, how it affects people, it’s very hard.

Talk about the project you are doing that CIRM is funding

It’s very exciting. The question for Parkinson’s is how do you stop disease progression, how do you stop the neurons from dying in areas affected by the disease. One protein, identified in 1997 as a genetic form of Parkinson’s, is alpha-synuclein. We know from studying families that have Parkinson’s that if you have too much alpha-synuclein you get early onset, a really aggressive form of Parkinson’s.

I followed a family that carries four copies of this alpha-synuclein gene (two copies is the normal figure) and the age of onset in this family was in their mid 30’s. Last year I went to a funeral for one of these family members who died from Parkinson’s at age 50.

We know that this protein is bad for you, if you have too much it kills brains cells. So we have an idea that if you lower levels of this protein it might be an approach to stop or shield those cells from cell death.

We are using CRISPR gene editing technology to approach this. In the Parkinson’s field this idea of down-regulation of alpha-synuclein protein isn’t new, but previous approaches worked at the protein level, trying to get rid of it by using, for example, immunotherapy. But instead of attacking the protein after it has been produced we are starting at the genomic level. We want to use CRISPR as a way to down-regulate the expression of the protein, in the same way we use a light dimmer to lower the level of light in a room.

But this is a balancing act. Too much of the protein is bad, but so is too little. We know if you get rid of the protein altogether you get negative effects, you cause complications. So we want to find the right level and that’s complex because the right level might vary from person to person.

We are starting with the most extreme levels, with people who have twice as much of this protein as is normal. Once we understand that better, then we can look at people who have levels that are still higher than normal but not at the upper levels we see in early-onset Parkinson’s. They have more subtle changes in their production or expression of this protein. It’s a little bit of a juggling act and it might be different for different patients. We start with the most severe ones and work our way to the most common ones.

One of the frustrations I often hear from patients is that this is all taking so long. Why is that?

Parkinson’s has been overall frustrating for researchers as well. Around 100 years ago, Dr. Lewy first described the protein deposits and the main neuropathology in Parkinson’s. About 20 years ago, mutations in the alpha-synuclein gene were discovered, and now we know approximately 30 genes that are associated with, or can cause Parkinson’s. But it was all very descriptive. It told us what is going on but not why.

Maybe we thought it was straight forward and maybe researchers only focused on what we knew at that point. In 1957, the neurotransmitter dopamine was identified and since the 1960s people have focused on Parkinson’s as a dopamine-deficient problem because we saw the amazing effects L-Dopa had on patients and how it could help ease their symptoms.

But I would say in the last 15 years we have looked at it more closely and realized it’s more complicated than that. There’s also a loss of sense of smell, there’s insomnia, episodes of depression, and other things that are not physical symptoms. In the last 10 years or so we have really put the pieces together and now see Parkinson’s as a multi-system disease with neuronal cell death and specific protein deposits called Lewy Bodies. These Lewy Bodies contain alpha-synuclein and you find them in the brain, the gut and the heart and these are organs people hadn’t looked at because no one made the connection that constipation or depression could be linked to the disease. It turns out that Parkinson’s is much more complicated than just a problem in one particular region of the brain.

The other reason for slow progress is that we don’t have really good models for the disease that are predictive for clinical outcomes. This is why probably many clinical trials in the neurodegenerative field have failed to date. Now we have human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from people with Parkinson’s, and iPSC-derived neurons allow us to better model the disease in the lab, and understand its underlying mechanisms  more deeply. The technology has now advanced so that the ability to differentiate these cells into nerve cells is better, so that you now have iPSC-derived neurons in a dish that are functionally active, and that act and behave like dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. This is an important advance.

Will this lead to a clinical trial?

That’s the idea, that’s our hope.

We are working with professor Dr. Deniz Kirik at the University of Lund in Sweden. He’s an expert in the field of viral vectors that can be used in humans – it’s a joint grant between us – and so what we learn from the human iPS cultures, he’ll transfer to an animal model and use his gene vector technology to see if we can see the same effects in vivo, in mice.

We are using a very special Parkinson’s mouse model – developed at UC San Francisco – that has the complete human genomic structure of the alpha-synuclein gene. If all goes well, we hope that ultimately we could be ready in a couple of years to think about preclinical testing and then clinical trials.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that I can contribute to stopping disease progression in Parkinson’s. If we can develop a drug that can get rid of accumulated protein in someone’s brain that should stop the cells from dying. If someone has early onset PD and a slight tremor and minor walking problems, stopping the disease and having a low dose of dopamine therapy to control symptoms is almost a cure.

The next step is to develop better biomarkers to identify people at risk of developing Parkinson’s, so if you know someone is a few years away from developing symptoms, and you have the tools in place, you can start treatment early and stop the disease from kicking in, even before you clinically have symptoms.

Thinking about people who have been diagnosed with a disease, who are ten years into the disease, who already have side effects from the disease, it’s a little harder to think of regenerative medicine, using embryonic or iPSCs for this. I think that it will take longer to see results with this approach, but that’s the long-term hope for the future. There are many  groups working in this space, which is critical to advance the field.

Why is Parkinson’s Awareness Month important?

It’s important because, while a lot of people know about the disease, there are also a lot of misconceptions about Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is confused with Alzheimer’s or dementia and cognitive problems, especially the fact that it’s more than just a gait and movement problem, that it affects many other parts of the body too.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Plasticity in the pancreas and two cool stem cell tools added to the research toolbox

There’s more plasticity in the pancreas than we thought. You’re taught a lot of things about the world when you’re young. As you get older, you realize that not everything you’re told holds true and it’s your own responsibility to determine fact from fiction. This evolution in understanding happens in science too. Scientists do research that leads them to believe that biological processes happen a certain way, only to sometimes find, a few years later, that things are different or not exactly what they had originally thought.

There’s a great example of this in a study published this week in Cell Metabolism about the pancreas. Scientists from UC Davis found that the pancreas, which secretes a hormone called insulin that helps regulate the levels of sugar in your blood, has more “plasticity” than was originally believed. In this case, plasticity refers to the ability of a tissue or organ to regenerate itself by replacing lost or damaged cells.

The long-standing belief in this field was that the insulin producing cells, called beta cells, are replenished when beta cells actively divide to create more copies of themselves. In patients with type 1 diabetes, these cells are specifically targeted and killed off by the immune system. As a result, the beta cell population is dramatically reduced, and patients have to go on life-long insulin treatment.

UC Davis researchers have identified another type of insulin-producing cell in the islets, which appears to be an immature beta cell shown in red. (UC Davis)

But it turns out there is another cell type in the pancreas that is capable of making beta cells and they look like a teenage, less mature version of beta cells. The UC Davis team identified these cells in mice and in samples of human pancreas tissue. These cells hangout at the edges of structures called islets, which are clusters of beta cells within the pancreas. Upon further inspection, the scientists found that these immature beta cells can secrete insulin but cannot detect blood glucose like mature beta cells. They also found their point of origin: the immature beta cells developed from another type of pancreatic cell called the alpha cell.

Diagram of immature beta cells from Cell Metabolism.

In coverage by EurekAlert, Dr Andrew Rakeman, the director of discovery research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, commented on the importance of this study’s findings and how it could be translated into a new approach for treating type 1 diabetes patients:

“The concept of harnessing the plasticity in the islet to regenerate beta cells has emerged as an intriguing possibility in recent years. The work from Dr. Huising and his team is showing us not only the degree of plasticity in islet cells, but the paths these cells take when changing identity. Adding to that the observations that the same processes appear to be occurring in human islets raises the possibility that these mechanistic insights may be able to be turned into therapeutic approaches for treating diabetes.”

 

Say hello to iPSCORE, new and improved tools for stem cell research. Stem cells are powerful tools to model human disease and their power got a significant boost this week from a new study published in Stem Cell Reports, led by scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The team developed a collection of over 200 induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) lines derived from people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. They call this stem cell tool kit “iPSCORE”, which stands for iPSC Collection for Omic Research (omics refers to a field of study in biology ending in -omics, such as genomics or proteomics). The goal of iPSCORE is to identify particular genetic variants (unique differences in DNA sequence between people’s genomes) that are associated with specific diseases and to understand why they cause disease at the molecular level.

In an interview with Phys.org, lead scientist on the study, Dr. Kelly Frazer, further explained the power of iPSCORE:

“The iPSCORE collection contains 75 lines from people of non-European ancestry, including East Asian, South Asian, African American, Mexican American, and Multiracial. It includes multigenerational families and monozygotic twins. This collection will enable us to study how genetic variation influences traits, both at a molecular and physiological level, in appropriate human cell types, such as heart muscle cells. It will help researchers investigate not only common but also rare, and even family-specific variations.”

This research is a great example of scientists identifying a limitation in stem cell research and expanding the stem cell tool kit to model diseases in a diverse human population.

A false color scanning electron micrograph of cultured human neuron from induced pluripotent stem cell. Credit: Mark Ellisman and Thomas Deerinck, UC San Diego.

Stem cells that can grow into ANY type of tissue. Embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the body, earning them the classification of pluripotent. But there is one type of tissue that embryonic stem cells can’t make and it’s called extra-embryonic tissue. This tissue forms the supportive tissue like the placenta that allows an embryo to develop into a healthy baby in the womb.

Stem cells that can develop into both extra-embryonic and embryonic tissue are called totipotent, and they are extremely hard to isolate and study in the lab because scientists lack the methods to maintain them in their totipotent state. Having the ability to study these special stem cells will allow scientists to answer questions about early embryonic development and fertility issues in women.

Reporting this week in the journal Cell, scientists from the Salk Institute in San Diego and Peking University in China identified a cocktail of chemicals that can stabilize human stem cells in a totipotent state where they can give rise to either tissue type. They called these more primitive stem cells extended pluripotent stem cells or EPS cells.

Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Bemonte, co–senior author of the paper, explained the problem their study addressed and the solution it revealed in a Salk news release:

“During embryonic development, both the fertilized egg and its initial cells are considered totipotent, as they can give rise to all embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages. However, the capture of stem cells with such developmental potential in vitro has been a major challenge in stem cell biology. This is the first study reporting the derivation of a stable stem cell type that shows totipotent-like bi-developmental potential towards both embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages.”

Human EPS cells (green) can be detected in both the embryonic part (left) and extra-embryonic parts (placenta and yolk sac, right) of a mouse embryo. (Salk Institute)

Using this new method, the scientists discovered that human EPS stem cells were able to develop chimeric embryos with mouse stem cells more easily than regular embryonic stem cells. First author on the study, Jun Wu, explained why this ability is important:

“The superior chimeric competency of both human and mouse EPS cells is advantageous in applications such as the generation of transgenic animal models and the production of replacement organs. We are now testing to see whether human EPS cells are more efficient in chimeric contribution to pigs, whose organ size and physiology are closer to humans.”

The Salk team reported on advancements in generating interspecies chimeras earlier this year. In one study, they were able to grow rat organs – including the pancreas, heart and eyes – in a mouse. In another study, they grew human tissue in early-stage pig and cattle embryos with the goal of eventually developing ways to generate transplantable organs for humans. You can read more about their research in this Salk news release.

One scientist’s quest to understand autism using stem cells

April is National Autism Awareness Month and people and organizations around the world are raising awareness about a disorder that affects more than 20 million people globally. Autism affects early brain development and causes a wide spectrum of social, mental, physical and emotional symptoms that appear during childhood. Because the symptoms and their severity can vary extremely between people, scientists now use the classification of autism spectrum disorder (ASM).

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, we’re featuring an interview with a CIRM-funded scientist who is on the forefront of autism and ASD research. Dr. Alysson Muotri is a professor at UC San Diego and his lab is interested in unlocking the secrets to brain development by using molecular tools and stem cell models.

One of his main research projects is on autism. Scientists in his lab are using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from individuals with ASD to model the disease in a dish. From these stem cell models, his team is identifying genes that are associated with ASD and potential drugs that could be used to treat this disorder. Ultimately, Dr. Muotri’s goal is to pave a path for the development of personalized therapies for people with ASD.

I reached out to Dr. Muotri to ask for an update on his Autism research. His responses are below.

Q: Can you briefly summarize your lab’s work on Autism Spectrum Disorders?

AM: As a neuroscientist studying autism, I was frustrated with the lack of a good experimental model to understand autism. All the previous models (animal, postmortem brain tissues, etc.) have serious experimental limitations. The inaccessibility of the human brain has blocked the progress of research on ASD for a long time. Cellular reprogramming allows us to transform easy-access cell types (such as skin, blood, dental pulp, etc.) into brain cells or even “mini-brains” in the lab. Because we can capture the entire genome of the person, we can recapitulate early stages of neurodevelopment of that same individual. This is crucial to study neurodevelopment disorders, such as ASD, because of the strong genetic factor underlying the pathology [the cause of a disease]. By comparing “mini-brains” between an ASD and neurotypical [non-ASD] groups, we can find anatomical and functional differences that might explain the clinical symptoms.

Q: What types of tools and models are you using to study ASD?

AM: Most of my lab takes advantage of reprogramming stem cells and genome editing techniques to generate 3D organoid models of ASD. We use the stem cells to create brain organoids, also called “mini-brains” in the lab. These mini-brains will develop from single cells and grow and mature in the same way as the fetal brain. Thus, we can learn about their structure and connectivity over time.

A cross section of a cerebral organoid or mini-brain courtesy of Alysson Muotri.

This new model brings something novel to the table: the ability to experimentally test specific hypotheses in a human background.  For example, we can ask if a specific genetic variant is causal for an autistic individual. Thus, we can edit the genome of that autistic individual, fixing target mutations in these mini-brains and check if now the fixed mini-brains will develop any abnormalities seen in ASD.

The ability to combine all these recent technologies to create a human experimental model of ASD in the lab is quite new and very exciting. As with any other model, there are limitations. For example, the mini-brains don’t have all the complexity and cell types seen in the developing human embryo/fetus. We also don’t know exactly if we are giving them the right and necessary environment (nutrients, growth factors, etc.) to mature. Nonetheless, the progress in this field is taking off quickly and it is all very promising.

Two mini-brains grown in a culture dish send out cellular extensions to connect with each other. Neurons are in green and astrocytes are in pink. Image courtesy of Dr. Muotri.

Q: We’ve previously written about your lab’s work on the Tooth Fairy Project and how you identified the TRPC6 gene. Can you share updates on this project and any new insights?

AM: The Tooth Fairy Project was designed to collect dental pulp cells from ASD and control individuals in a non-invasive fashion (no need for skin biopsy or to draw blood). We used social media to connect with families and engage them in our research. It was so successful we have now hundreds of cells in the lab. We use this material to reprogram into stem cells and to sequence their DNA.

One of the first ASD participants had a mutation in one copy of the TRPC6 gene, a novel ASD gene candidate. Everybody has two copies of this gene in the genome, but because of the mutation, this autistic kid has only one functional copy. Using stem cells, we re-created cortical neurons from that individual and confirmed that this mutation inhibits the formation of excitatory synapses (connections required to propagate information).

Interestingly, while studying TRPC6, we realized that a molecule found in Saint John’s Wort, hyperforin, could stimulate the functional TRPC6. Since the individual still has one functional TRPC6 gene copy, it seemed reasonable to test if hyperforin treatment could compensate the mutation on the other copy. It did. A treatment with hyperforin for only two weeks could revert the deficits on the neurons derived from that autistic boy. More exciting is the fact that the family agreed to incorporate St. John’s Wort on his diet. We have anecdotal evidence that this actually improved his social and emotional skills.

To me, this is the first example of personalized treatment for ASD, starting with genome sequencing, detecting potential causative genetic mutations, performing cellular modeling in the lab, and moving into clinic. I believe that there are many other autistic cases where this approach could be used to find better treatments, even with off the counter medications. To me, that is the greatest insight.

Watch Dr. Muotri’s Spotlight presentation about the Tooth Fairy Project and his work on autism.

Q: Is any of the research you are currently doing in autism moving towards clinical trials?

AM: IGF-1, or insulin growth factor-1, a drug we found promising for Rett syndrome and a subgroup of idiopathic [meaning its causes are spontaneous or unknown] ASD is now in clinical trials. Moreover, we just concluded a CIRM award on a large drug screening for ASD. The data is very promising, with several candidates. We have 14 drugs in the pipeline, some are repurposed drugs (initially designed for cancer, but might work for ASD). It will require additional pre-clinical studies before we start clinical trials.

Q: What do you think the future of diagnosis and treatment will be for patients with ASD?

AM: I am a big enthusiastic fan of personalized treatments for ASD. While we continue to search for a treatment that could help a large fraction of ASD people, we also recognized that some cases might be easier than others depending on their genetic profile. The idea of using stem cells to create “brain avatars” of ASD individuals in the lab is very exciting. We are also studying the possibility of using this approach as a future diagnostic tool for ASD. I can imagine every baby having their “brain avatar” analyses done in the lab, eventually pointing out “red flags” on the ones that failed to achieve neurodevelopment milestones. If we could capture these cases, way before the autism symptoms onset, we could initiate early treatments and therapies, increasing the chances for a better prognostic and clinical trajectory. None of these would be possible without stem cell research.

Q: What other types of research is your lab doing?

Mini-brains grown in a dish in Dr. Muotri’s lab.

AM: My lab is also using these human mini-brains to test the impact of environmental factors in neurodevelopment. By exposing the mini-brains to certain agents, such as pollution particles, household chemicals, cosmetics or agrotoxic products [pesticides], we can measure the concentration that is likely to induce brain abnormalities (defects in neuronal migration, synaptogenesis, etc.). This toxicological test can complement or substitute for other commonly used analyses, such as animal models, that are not very humane or predictive of human biology. A nice example from my lab was when we used this approach to confirm the detrimental effect of the Zika virus on brain development. Not only did we show causation between the circulating Brazilian Zika virus and microcephaly [a birth defect that causes an abnormally small head], but our data also pointed towards a potential mechanism (we showed that the virus kills neural progenitor cells, reducing the thickness of the cortical layers in the brain).

You can learn more about Dr. Muotri’s research on his lab’s website.


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Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: stem cell insights into anorexia, Zika infection and bubble baby disease

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.

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are often thought to be caused by psychological disturbances or societal pressure. However, research into the genes of anorexia patients suggests that what’s written in your DNA can be associated with an increased vulnerability to having this disorder. But identifying individual genes at fault for a disease this complex has remained mostly out of scientists’ reach, until now.

A CIRM-funded team from the UC San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine reported this week that they’ve developed a stem cell-based model of anorexia and used it to identify a gene called TACR1, which they believe is associated with an increased likelihood of getting anorexia.

They took skin samples from female patients with anorexia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells contained the genetic information potentially responsible for causing their anorexia. The team matured these iPSCs into brain cells, called neurons, in a dish, and then studied what genes got activated. When they looked at the genes activated by anorexia neurons, they found that TACR1, a gene associated with psychiatric disorders, was switched on higher in anorexia neurons than in healthy neurons. These findings suggest that the TACR1 gene could be an identifier for this disease and a potential target for developing new treatments.

In a UCSD press release, Professor and author on the study, Alysson Muotri, said that they will follow up on their findings by studying stem cell lines derived from a larger group of patients.

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

“But more to the point, this work helps make that possible. It’s a novel technological advance in the field of eating disorders, which impacts millions of people. These findings transform our ability to study how genetic variations alter brain molecular pathways and cellular networks to change risk of anorexia nervosa — and perhaps our ability to create new therapies.”

Anorexia is a disease that affects 1% of the global population and although therapy can be an effective treatment for some, many do not make a full recovery. Stem cell-based models could prove to be a new method for unlocking new clues into what causes anorexia and what can cure it.

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

Zika virus is no longer dominating the news headlines these days compared to 2015 when large outbreaks of the virus in the Southern hemisphere came to a head. However, the threat of Zika-induced birth defects, like microcephaly to pregnant women and their unborn children is no less real or serious two years later. There are still no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs that prevent Zika infection but scientists are working fast to meet this unmet need.

Speaking of which, scientists at UCLA think they might have a new weapon in the war against Zika. Back in 2013, they reported that a natural compound in the body called 25HC was effective at attacking viruses and prevented human cells from being infected by viruses like HIV, Ebola and Hepatitis C.

When the Zika outbreak hit, they thought that this compound could potentially be effective at preventing Zika infection as well. In their new study published in the journal Immunity, they tested a synthetic version of 25HC in animal and primate models, they found that it protected against infection. They also tested the compound on human brain organoids, or mini brains in a dish made from pluripotent stem cells. Brain organoids are typically susceptible to Zika infection, which causes substantial cell damage, but this was prevented by treatment with 25HC.

Left to right: (1) Zika virus (green) infects and destroys the formation of neurons (pink) in human stem cell-derived brain organoids.  (2) 25HC blocks Zika infection and preserves neuron formation in the organoids. (3) Reduced brain size and structure in a Zika-infected mouse brain. (4) 25HC preserves mouse brain size and structure. Image courtesy of UCLA Stem Cell.

A UCLA news release summarized the impact that this research could have on the prevention of Zika infection,

“The new research highlights the potential use of 25HC to combat Zika virus infection and prevent its devastating outcomes, such as microcephaly. The research team will further study whether 25HC can be modified to be even more effective against Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.”

Harnessing a naturally made weapon already found in the human body to fight Zika could be an alternative strategy to preventing Zika infection.

Gene therapy in stem cells gives hope to bubble-babies.

Last week, an inspiring and touching story was reported by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle. She featured Ja’Ceon Golden, a young baby not even 6 months old, who was born into a life of isolation because he lacked a properly functioning immune system. Ja’Ceon had a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as bubble-baby disease.

 

Ja’Ceon Golden is treated by patient care assistant Grace Deng (center) and pediatric oncology nurse Kat Wienskowski. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle.

Babies with SCID lack the body’s immune defenses against infectious diseases and are forced to live in a sterile environment. Without early treatment, SCID babies often die within one year due to recurring infections. Bone marrow transplantation is the most common treatment for SCID, but it’s only effective if the patient has a donor that is a perfect genetic match, which is only possible for about one out of five babies with this disease.

Advances in gene therapy are giving SCID babies like Ja’Ceon hope for safer, more effective cures. The SF Chronicle piece highlights two CIRM-funded clinical trials for SCID run by UCLA in collaboration with UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In these trials, scientists isolate the bone marrow stem cells from SCID babies, correct the genetic mutation causing SCID in their stem cells, and then transplant them back into the patient to give them a healthy new immune system.

The initial results from these clinical trials are promising and support other findings that gene therapy could be an effective treatment for certain genetic diseases. CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Sohel Talib, was quoted in the Chronicle piece saying,

“Gene therapy has been shown to work, the efficacy has been shown. And it’s safe. The confidence has come. Now we have to follow it up.”

Ja’Ceon was the first baby treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and so far, he is responding well to the treatment. His great aunt Dannie Hawkins said that it was initially hard for her to enroll Ja’Ceon in this trial because she was a partial genetic match and had the option of donating her own bone-marrow to help save his life. In the end, she decided that his involvement in the trial would “open the door for other kids” to receive this treatment if it worked.

Ja’Ceon Golden plays with patient care assistant Grace Deng in a sterile play area at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle

It’s brave patients and family members like Ja’Ceon and Dannie that make it possible for research to advance from clinical trials into effective treatments for future patients. We at CIRM are eternally grateful for their strength and the sacrifices they make to participate in these trials.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught our Eye: Making blood and muscle from stem cells and helping students realize their “pluripotential”

Stem cells offer new drug for blood diseases. A new treatment for blood disorders might be in the works thanks to a stem cell-based study out of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s hospital. Their study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The teams made induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from the skin of patients with a rare blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA) – a bone marrow disease that prevents new blood cells from forming. iPSCs from DBA patients were then specialized into blood progenitor cells, the precursors to blood cells. However, these precursor cells were incapable of forming red blood cells in a dish like normal precursors do.

Red blood cells were successfully made via induced pluripotent stem cells from a Diamond-Blackfan anemia patient. Image: Daley lab, Boston Children’s

Red blood cells were successfully made via induced pluripotent stem cells from a Diamond-Blackfan anemia patient. Image: Daley lab, Boston Children’s

The blood progenitor cells from DBA patients were then used to screen a library of compounds to identify drugs that could get the DBA progenitor cells to develop into red blood cells. They found a compound called SMER28 that had this very effect on progenitor cells in a dish. When the compound was tested in zebrafish and mouse models of DBA, the researchers observed an increase in red blood cell production and a reduction of anemia symptoms.

Getting pluripotent stem cells like iPSCs to turn into blood progenitor cells and expand these cells into a population large enough for drug screening has not been an easy task for stem cell researchers.

Co-first author on the study, Sergei Doulatov, explained in a press release, “iPS cells have been hard to instruct when it comes to making blood. This is the first time iPS cells have been used to identify a drug to treat a blood disorder.”

In the future, the researchers will pursue the questions of why and how SMER28 boosts red blood cell generation. Further work will be done to determine whether this drug will be a useful treatment for DBA patients and other blood disorders.

 

Students realize their “pluripotential”. In last week’s stem cell stories, I gave a preview about an exciting stem cell “Day of Discovery” hosted by USC Stem Cell in southern California. The event happened this past Saturday. Over 500 local middle and high school students attended the event and participated in lab tours, poster sessions, and a career resource fair. Throughout the day, they were engaged by scientists and educators about stem cell science through interactive games, including the stem cell edition of Family Feud and a stem cell smartphone videogame developed by USC graduate students.

In a USC press release, Rohit Varma, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, emphasized the importance of exposing young students to research and scientific careers.

“It was a true joy to welcome the middle and high school students from our neighboring communities in Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, the San Gabriel Valley and throughout Los Angeles. This bright young generation brings tremendous potential to their future pursuits in biotechnology and beyond.”

Maria Elena Kennedy, a consultant to the Bassett Unified School District, added, “The exposure to the Keck School of Medicine of USC is invaluable for the students. Our students come from a Title I School District, and they don’t often have the opportunity to come to a campus like the Keck School of Medicine.”

The day was a huge success with students posting photos of their experiences on social media and enthusiastically writing messages like “stem cells are our future” and “USC is my goal”. One high school student acknowledged the opportunity that this day offers to students, “California currently has biotechnology as the biggest growing sector. Right now, it’s really important that students are visiting labs and learning more about the industry, so they can potentially see where they’re going with their lives and careers.”

You can read more about USC’s Stem Cell Day of Discovery here. Below are a few pictures from the event courtesy of David Sprague and USC.

Students have fun with robots representing osteoblast and osteoclast cells at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Students have fun with robots representing osteoblast and osteoclast cells at the USC Stem Cell Day of Discovery. Photo by David Sprague

Dr. Francesca Mariana shows off a mouse skeleton that has been dyed to show bones and cartilage at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Dr. Francesca Mariana shows off a mouse skeleton that has been dyed to show bones and cartilage. Photo by David Sprague

USC masters student Shantae Thornton shows students how cells are held in long term cold storage tanks at -195 celsius at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

USC masters student Shantae Thornton shows students how cells are held in long term cold storage tanks at -195 celsius. Photo by David Sprague

Genesis Archila, left, and Jasmine Archila get their picture taken at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Genesis Archila, left, and Jasmine Archila get their picture taken at the USC Stem Cell Day of Discovery. Photo by David Sprague

New stem cell recipes for making muscle: new inroads to study muscular dystrophy (Todd Dubnicoff)

Embryonic stem cells are amazing because scientists can change or specialize them into virtually any cell type. But it’s a lot easier said than done. Researchers essentially need to mimic the process of embryo development in a petri dish by adding the right combination of factors to the stem cells in just the right order at just the right time to obtain a desired type of cell.

Making human muscle tissue from embryonic stem cells has proven to be a challenge. The development of muscle, as well as cartilage and bone, are well characterized and known to form from an embryonic structure called a somite. Researches have even been successful working out the conditions for making somites from animal stem cells. But those recipes didn’t work well with human stem cells.

Now, a team of researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA has overcome this roadblock by carrying out a systematic approach using human tissue. As described in Cell Reports, the scientists isolated somites from early human embryos and studied their gene activity. By comparing somites that were just beginning to emerge with fully formed somites, the researchers pinpointed differences in gene activity patterns. With this data in hand, the team added factors to the cells that were known to affect the activity of those genes. Through some trial and error, they produced a recipe – different than those used in animal cells – that could convert 90 percent of the human stem cells into somites in only four days. Those somites could then readily transform into muscle or bone or cartilage.

This new method for making human muscle will be critical for the lab’s goal to develop therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an incurable muscle wasting disease that strikes young boys and is usually fatal by their 20’s.

The new protocol turned 90 percent of human pluripotent stem cells into somite cells in just four days; those somite cells then generated (left to right) cartilage, bone and muscle cells.  Image: April Pyle Lab/UCLA

The new protocol turned 90 percent of human pluripotent stem cells into somite cells in just four days; those somite cells then generated (left to right) cartilage, bone and muscle cells. Image: April Pyle Lab/UCLA

Has the promise of stem cells been overstated?

One of the most famous stem cell scientists in the world said on Monday that the promise of stem cell treatments has in some ways been overstated.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, one of the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), said, “we can help just a small portion of patients by stem cell therapy.”

Shinya Yamanaka. (Image source: Ko Sasaki, New York Times)

Shinya Yamanaka. (Image source: Ko Sasaki, New York Times)

He explained that there are only 10 target diseases that he believes will benefit directly from stem cell therapies including, “Parkinson’s, retinal and corneal diseases, heart and liver failure, diabetes, spinal cord injury, joint disorders and some blood disorders. But maybe that’s all. The number of human diseases is enormous.”

This is a big statement coming from a key opinion leader in the field of stem cell research, and it’s likely to spur a larger conversation on the future of stem cell treatments.

Yamanaka also touched on another major point in his interview – progress takes time.

In the ten years since his discovery of iPS cells, he and other scientists have learned the hard way that the development of stem cell treatments can be time consuming. While autologous iPS cell treatments (making stem cell lines from a patient and transplanting them back into that patient) have entered clinical trials to treat patients with macular degeneration, a disease that causes blindness, the trials have been put on hold until the safety of the stem cell lines being used are confirmed.

At the World Alliance Forum in November, Yamanaka revealed that generating a single patient iPS cell line can cost up to one million dollars which isn’t feasible for the 1000’s of patients who need them. He admitted that the fate of personalized stem cell medicine, which once seemed so promising, now seems unrealistic because it’s time consuming and costly.

But with any obstacle, there is always a path around it. Under Yamanaka’s guidance, Japan is generating donor iPS cell lines that can be used to treat a large portion of the Japanese population. Yamanaka said that 100 lines would cover 100 million people in Japan and that 200 lines would be enough to cover the US population. iPS cell banks are being generated around the world, meaning that one day the millions of people suffering from the target diseases Yamanaka mentioned could be treated or even cured. Would this not fulfill a promise that was made about the potential of stem cell treatments?

Which brings me to my point, I don’t believe the promise of stem cells has been overstated. I think that it has yet to be realized, and it will take more research and more time to get there. As a community, we need to be understanding, patient, and supportive.

In my opinion (as a scientist aside from my role at CIRM), I believe that Yamanaka’s interview failed to reveal his optimism about the future of stem cell treatments. What I took from Yamanaka’s comments is that stem cell treatments can help a small number of patients with specific diseases right now. That’s not to say that stem cell research won’t produce promising treatments for other diseases in the future.

Retinal diseases and blood disorders are easier to target with stem cell treatments because only one type of cell needs to be replaced. It makes sense to tackle those diseases first and make sure that these stem cell treatments are effective and safe in patients before we focus on more complicated diseases where multiple cell types or organs are involved.

Part of the reason why scientists are unsure whether stem cell treatments can treat complex diseases is because we still don’t know the details of what causes these diseases. After we know more about what’s going wrong, including all the cell types and molecules involved, research might reveal new ways that stem cells could be used to help treat those diseases. Or on the other hand, stem cells could be used to model those diseases to help discover new drug treatments.

I’ve heard Yamanaka talk many times and recently I heard him speak at the World Alliance Forum in November, where he said that the two biggest hurdles we are facing for stem cell treatments to be successful is time and cost. After we overcome these hurdles, his outlook was optimistic that stem cell treatments could improve people’s lives. But he stressed that these advances will take time.

He shared a similar sentiment at the very end of the NY Times interview by referencing his father’s story and the decades it took to cure hepatitis C,

“You know, my father had a small factory. He injured his leg in the factory when I was in junior high. He had a transfusion, and he got hepatitis C. He passed away in 1989. Twenty-five years later, just two years ago, scientists developed a very effective cure. We now have a tablet. Three months and the virus is gone — it’s amazing. But it took 25 years. iPS cells are only 10 years old. The research takes time. That’s what everybody needs to understand.”

Yamanaka says more time is needed for stem cell treatments to become effective cures, but CIRM has already witnessed success. In our December Board meeting, we heard from two patients who were cured of genetic blood diseases by stem cell treatments that CIRM funded. One of them was diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and the other had chronic granulomatous disease (CGD). Both had their blood stem cells genetically engineered to removed disease-causing mutations and then transplanted back into their body to create a healthy immune system and cure them of their disease.

Hearing how grateful these patients and their families were to receive life-saving stem cell treatments and how this research brings new hope to other patients suffering from the same diseases, in my mind, fulfills the promise of stem cell research and makes funding stem cell treatments worth it.

I believe we will hear more and more of these success stories in the next decade and CIRM will most certainly play an important role in this future. There are others in the field who share a similar optimism for the future of stem cell treatments. Hank Greely, the Director for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, said in an interview with the Sacramento Bee about the future of CIRM,

Hank Greely, Stanford University

Hank Greely, Stanford University

“The next few years should determine just how good California’s investment has been. It is encouraging to see CIRM supporting so many clinical trials; it will be much more exciting when – and I do expect ‘when’ and not ‘if’ – one of those trials leads to an approved treatment.”

 


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Stem cell stories that caught our eye: insights into stem cell biology through telomeres, reprogramming and lung disease

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.

Telomeres and stem cell stability: too much of a good thing

Just like those plastic tips at the end of shoelaces (fun fact: they’re called aglets), telomeres form a protective cap on the end of chromosomes. Because of the way DNA replication works, the telomeres shorten each time a cell divides. Trim away enough of the telomere over time and, like a frayed shoelace, the chromosomes become unstable and an easy target for damage which eventually leads to cell death.

telomere_caps

Telomeres (white dots) form a protective cap on chromsomes (gray). (Wikimedia) 

Stem cells are unique in that they contain an enzyme called telomerase that lengthens telomeres. Telomerase activity and telomere lengthening are critical for a stem cell’s ability to maintain virtually limitless cell divisions. So you’d assume the longer the telomere, the more stable the cell. But Salk Institute scientists reported this week that too much telomere can be just as bad, if not worse, than too little.

The CIRM-funded work, which was published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, used genetic engineering to artificially vary telomerase activity in human embryonic stem cells. Cells with low telomerase activity had shorter telomeres and died. This result wasn’t a surprise since the short telomeres-cell death observation has been well documented. Based on those results, the team was expecting cells with boosted telomerase activity and, in turn, extended telomeres would be especially stable. But that’s not what happened as senior author Jan Karlseder mentioned in a Salk press release:

“We were surprised to find that forcing cells to generate really long telomeres caused telomeric fragility, which can lead to initiation of cancer. These experiments question the generally accepted notion that artificially increasing telomeres could lengthen life or improve the health of an organism.”

The researchers also examined induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in the study and found that the cells contain “footprints” of telomere trimming. So the team is in a position to study how a cell’s telomere history relates to how well it can be reprogrammed into iPS cells. First author Teresa Rivera pointed out the big picture significance of this finding:

“Stem cell reprogramming is a major scientific breakthrough, but the methods are still being perfected. Understanding how telomere length is regulated is an important step toward realizing the promise of stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine.”

jan-karlseder_teresa-rivera-garcia0x8c7144w

Jan Karlseder and Teresa Rivera

Lego set of gene activators takes trial and error out of cellular reprogramming

To convert one cell type into another, stem cell researchers rely on educated guesses and a lot of trial and error. In fact, that’s how Shinya Yamanaka identified the four Yamanaka Factors which, when inserted into a skin cell, reprogram it into the embryonic stem cell-like state of an iPS cell. That ground-breaking discovery ten years ago has opened the way for researchers worldwide to specialize iPS cells into all sorts of cell types from nerve cells to liver cells. While some cell types are easy to generate this way, others are much more difficult.

Reporting this week in PNAS, a University of Wisconsin–Madison research team has developed a nifty systematic, high-throughput method for identifying the factors necessary to convert a cell from one type to another. Their strategy promises to free researchers from the costly and time consuming trial and error approach still in use today.

The centerpiece of their method is artificial transcription factors (ATFs). Now, natural transcription factors – Yamanaka’s Factors are examples – are proteins that bind DNA and activate or silence genes. Their impact on gene activity, in turn, can have a cascading effects on other genes and proteins ultimately causing, say a stem cell, to start making muscle proteins and turn into a muscle cell.

Transcription factors are very modular proteins – one part is responsible for binding DNA, another part for affecting gene activity and other parts that bind to other proteins. The ATFs generated in this study are like lego versions of natural transcription factors – each are constructed from combinations of different transcription factor parts. The team made nearly 3 million different ATFs.

As a proof of principle, the researchers tried reproducing Yamanaka’s original, groundbreaking iPS cell experiment. They inserted the ATFs into skin cells that already had 3 of the 4 Yamanaka factors, they left out Oct4. They successfully generated iPS with this approach and then went back and studied the makeup of the ATFs that had caused cells to reprogram into iPS cells. Senior author Aseem Ansari gave a great analogy in a university press release:

“Imagine you have millions of keys and only a unique key or combination of keys can turn a motor on. We test all those keys in parallel and when we see the motor fire up, we go back to see exactly which key switched it on.”

atf_ips_cells

Micrograph of induced pluripotent stem cells generated from artificial transcription factors. The cells express green fluorescent protein after a key gene known as Oct4 is activated. (ASUKA EGUCHI/UW-MADISON)

The analysis showed that these ATFs had stimulated gene activity cascades which didn’t directly involve Oct4 but yet ultimately activated it. This finding is important because it suggests that future cell conversion experiments could uncover some not so obvious cell fate pathways. Ansari explains this point further:

“It’s a way to induce cell fate conversions without having to know what genes might be important because we are able to test so many by using an unbiased library of molecules that can search nearly every corner of the genome.”

This sort of brute force method to accelerate research discoveries is music to our ears at CIRM because it ultimately could lead to therapies faster.

Search for clues to treat deadly lung disease

When researchers don’t understand what causes a particular disease, a typical strategy is to compare gene activity in diseased vs healthy cells and identify important differences. Those differences may lead to potential paths to developing a therapy. That’s the approach a collaborative team from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Cedars-Sinai Medical took to tackle idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).

IPF is a chronic lung disease which causes scarring, or fibrosis, in the air sacs of the lung. This is the spot where oxygen is taken up by tiny blood vessels that surround the air sacs. With fibrosis, the air sacs stiffen and thicken and as a result less oxygen gets diffused into the blood and starves the body of oxygen.  IPF can lead to death within 2 to 5 years after diagnosis. Unfortunately, no cures exist and the cause is unknown, or idiopathic.

(Wikimedia)

(Wikimedia)

The transfer of oxygen from air sacs to blood vessels is an intricate one with many cell types involved. So pinpointing what goes wrong in IPF at a cellular and molecular level has proved difficult. In the current study, the scientists, for the first time, collected gene sequencing data from single cells from healthy and diseased lungs. This way, a precise cell by cell analysis of gene activity was possible.

One set of gene activity patterns found in healthy sample were connected to proper formation of a particular type of air sac cell called the aveolar type 2 lung cell. Other gene patterns were linked to abnormal IPF cell types. With this data in hand, the researchers can further investigate the role of these genes in IPF which may open up new therapy approaches to this deadly disease.

The study funded in part by CIRM was published this week in Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight and a press release about the study was picked up by PR Newswire.

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.

Eggciting News: Scientists developed fertilized eggs from mouse stem cells

A really eggciting science story came out early this week that’s received a lot of attention. Scientists in Japan reported in the journal Nature that they’ve generated egg cells from mouse stem cells, and these eggs could be fertilized and developed into living, breathing mice.

This is the first time that scientists have reported the successful development of egg cells in the lab outside of an animal. Many implications emerge from this research like gaining a better understanding of human development, generating egg cells from other types of mammals and even helping infertile women become pregnant.

Making eggs from pluripotent stem cells

The egg cells, also known as oocytes, were generated from mouse embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells derived from mouse skin cells in a culture dish. Both stem cell types are pluripotent, meaning that they can generate almost any cell type in the human body.

After generating the egg cells, the scientists fertilized the eggs through in vitro fertilization (IVF) using sperm from a healthy male mouse. They allowed the fertilized eggs to grow into two cell embryos which they then transplanted into female mice. 11 out of 316 embryos (or 3.5%) produced offspring, which were then able to reproduce after they matured into adults.

mice

These mice were born from artificial eggs that were made from stem cells in a dish. (K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

Not perfect science

While impressive, this study did identify major issues with its egg-making technique. First, less than 5% of the embryos made from the stem-cell derived eggs developed into viable mice. Second, the scientists discovered that some of their lab-grown eggs (~18%) had abnormal numbers of chromosomes – an event that can prevent an embryo from developing or can cause genetic disorders in offspring.

Lastly, to generate mature egg cells, the scientists had to add cells taken from mouse embryos in pregnant mice to the culture dish. These outside cells acted as a support environment that helped the egg cells mature and were essential for their development. The scientists are working around this issue by developing artificial reagents that could hopefully replace the need for these cells.

Egg cells made from embryonic stem cells in a dish. (K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

Egg cells made from embryonic stem cells in a dish. (K. Hayashi, Kyushu University)

Will human eggs be next?

A big discovery such as this one immediately raises ethical questions and concerns about whether scientists will attempt to generate artificial human egg cells in a dish. Such technology would be extremely valuable to women who do not have eggs or have problems getting pregnant. However, in the wrong hands, a lot could go wrong with this technology including the creation of genetically abnormal embryos.

In a Nature news release, Azim Surani who is well known in this area of research, said that these ethical issues should be discussed now and include the general public. “This is the right time to involve the wider public in these discussions, long before and in case the procedure becomes feasible in humans.”

In an interview with Phys.org , James Adjaye, another expert from Heinrich Heine University in Germany, raised the point that even if we did generate artificial human eggs, “the final and ultimate test for fully functional human ‘eggs in a dish’ would be the fertilization using IVF, which is also ethically not allowed.”

Looking forward, senior author on the Nature study, Katsuhiko Hayashi, predicted that in a decade, lab-grown “oocyte-like” human eggs will be available but probably not at a scale for fertility treatments. Because of the technical issues his study revealed, he commented, “It is too preliminary to use artificial oocytes in the clinic.”