Women who have changed, and are changing, the world

The problem with trying to write about something like Women’s History Month is where do you start? Even if you narrow it down to women in science the list is vast.

Marie Curie

I suppose you could always start with Maria Salomea Skłodowska who is better known as Marie Curie. She not only discovered radium and polonium, but she was also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in Physics). When she later won another Nobel (in Chemistry) she became the first person ever to win two Nobels and is still the only person ever to win in two different fields. Not a bad place to start.

Agnes Pockels

Or how about Agnes Pockels (1862–1935). Even as a child Agnes was fascinated by science but, in Germany at the time, women were not allowed to attend university. So, she depended on her younger brother to send her his physics textbooks when he was finished with them. Agnes studied at home while taking care of her elderly parents. Doing the dishes  Agnes noticed how oils and soaps could impact the surface tension of water. So, she invented a method of measuring that surface tension. She wrote a paper about her findings that was published in Nature, and went on to become a highly respected and honored pioneer in the field.

Jennifer Doudna (left) and Emmanuelle Charpentier: Photo courtesy Nature

Fast forward to today we could certainly do worse than profile the two women who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work with the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9; Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Their pioneering work showed how you could use CRISPR  to make precise edits in genes, creating the possibility of using it to edit human genes to eliminate or cure diseases. In fact, some CIRM-funded research is already using this approach to try and cure sickle cell disease.

In awarding the Nobel to Charpentier and Doudna, Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a biophysical chemist and member of the Nobel chemistry committee, said: “The ability to cut DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences. The ‘genetic scissors’ were discovered just eight years ago but have already benefited humankind greatly.”

Barbara McClintock: Photo courtesy Brittanica

Appropriately enough none of that work would have been possible without the pioneering work of another woman, Barbara McClintock. She dedicated her career to studying the genetics of corn and developed a technique that enabled her to identify individual chromosomes in different strains of corn.

At the time it was thought that genes were stable and were arranged in a linear fashion on chromosomes, like beads on a string. McClintock’s work showed that genes could be mobile, changing position and altering the work of other genes. It took a long time before the scientific world caught up with her and realized she was right. But in 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work.

Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center: Photo courtesy NASA /AFP

Katherine Johnson is another brilliant mind whose recognition came later in life. But when it did, it made her a movie star. Kind of. Johnson was a mathematician, a “computer” in the parlance of the time. She did calculations by hand, enabling NASA to safely launch and recover astronauts in the early years of the space race.

Johnson and the other Black “computers” were segregated from their white colleagues until the last 1950’s, when signs dictating which restrooms and drinking fountains they could use were removed. She was so highly regarded that when John Glenn was preparing for the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the earth he asked for her to manually check the calculations a computer had made. He trusted her far more than any machine.

Johnson and her co-workers were overlooked until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” brought their story to life. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama.

There are so many extraordinary women scientists we could talk about who have made history. But we should also remind ourselves that we are surrounded by remarkable women right now, women who are making history in their own way, even if we don’t recognized it at the moment. Researchers that CIRM funds, Dr. Catriona Jamieson at UC San Diego, Dr. Jan Nolta at UC Davis, Dr. Jane Lebkowski with Regenerative Patch technologies and so many others. They’re all helping to change the world. We just don’t know it yet.

If you would like to learn about other women who have made extraordinary contributions to science you can read about them here and here and here.

Organoids revolutionize approach to studying a variety of diseases

Organoids

There are limitations to studying cells under a microscope. To understand some of the more complex processes, it is critical to see how these cells behave in an environment that is similar to conditions in the body. The production of organoids has revolutionized this approach.

Organoids are three-dimensional structures derived from stem cells that have similar characteristics of an actual organ. There have been several studies recently published that have used this approach to understand a wide scope of different areas.

In one such instance, researchers at The University of Cambridge were able to grow a “mini-brain” from human stem cells. To demonstrate that this organoid had functional capabilities similar to that of an actual brain, the researchers hooked it up to a mouse spinal cord and surrounding muscle. What they found was remarkable– the “mini-brain” sent electrial signals to the spinal cord that made the surrounding muscles twitch. This model could pave the way for studying neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Spinal muscular atrophy

Speaking of SMA, researchers in Singapore have used organoids to come up with some findings that might be able to help people battling the condition.

SMA is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a protein deficiency that results in nerve degeneration, paralysis and even premature death. The fact that it mainly affects children makes it even worse. Not much is known how SMA develops and even less how to treat or prevent it.

That’s where the research from the A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) comes in. Using the iPSC method they turned tissue samples from healthy people and people with SMA into spinal organoids.

They then compared the way the cells developed in the organoids and found that the motor nerve cells from healthy people were fully formed by day 35. However, the cells from people with SMA started to degenerate before they got to that point.

They also found that the protein problem that causes SMA to develop did so by causing the motor nerve cells to divide, something they don’t normally do. So, by blocking the mechanism that caused the cells to divide they were able to prevent the cells from dying.

In an article in Science and Technology Research News lead researcher Shi-Yan Ng said this approach could help unlock clues to other diseases such as ALS.

“We are one of the first labs to report the formation of spinal organoids. Our study presents a new method for culturing human spinal-cord-like tissues that could be crucial for future research.”

Just yesterday the CIRM Board awarded almost $4 million to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics to try and develop a treatment for another debilitating back problem called degenerative spondylolisthesis.

And finally, organoid modeling was used to better understand and study an infectious disease. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin created fallopian tube organoids from normal human cells. Fallopian tubes are the pair of tubes found inside women along which the eggs travel from the ovaries to the uterus. The scientists observed the effects of chronic infections of Chlamydia, a sexually transmittable infection. It was discovered that chronic infections lead to permanent changes at the DNA level as the cells age. These changes to DNA are permanent even after the infection is cleared, and could be indicative of the increased risk of cervical cancer observed in women with Chlamydia or those that have contracted it in the past.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught Our Eye: GPS for Skin & Different Therapies for Aging vs. Injured Muscles?

Skin stem cells specialize into new skin by sensing neighborhood crowding
When embarking on a road trip, the GPS technology inside our smartphones helps us know where we are and how to get where we’re going. The stem cells buried in the deepest layers of our skin don’t have a GPS and yet, they do just fine determining their location, finding their correct destination and becoming the appropriate type of skin cell. And as a single organ, all the skin covering your body maintains the right density and just the right balance of skin stem cells versus mature skin cells as we grow from a newborn into adult.

crowdinginth

Skin cells growing in a petri dish (green: cytoskeleton, red: cell-cell junction protein).
Credit: MPI for Biology of Aging

This easily overlooked but amazing feat is accomplished as skin cells are continually born and die about every 30 days over your lifetime. How does this happen? It’s an important question to answer considering the skin is our first line of defense against germs, toxins and other harmful substances.

This week, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging in Cologne, Germany reported a new insight into this poorly understood topic. The team showed that it all comes down to the skin cells sensing the level of crowding in their local environment. As skin stem cells divide, it puts the squeeze on neighboring stem cells. This physical change in tension on these cells “next door” triggers signals that cause them to move upward toward the skin surface and to begin maturing into skin cells.

Lead author Yekaterina Miroshnikova explained in a press release the beauty of this mechanism:

“The fact that cells sense what their neighbors are doing and do the exact opposite provides a very efficient and simple way to maintain tissue size, architecture and function.”

The research was picked up by Phys.Org on Tuesday and was published in Nature Cell Biology.

Stem cells respond differently to aging vs. injured muscle
From aging skin, we now move on to our aging and injured muscles, two topics I know oh too well as a late-to-the-game runner. Researchers at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) in La Jolla report a surprising discovery that muscle stem cells respond differently to aging versus injury. This important new insight could help guide future therapeutic strategies for repairing muscle injuries or disorders.

muscle stem cell

Muscle stem cell (pink with green outline) sits along a muscle fiber.
Image: Michael Rudnicki/OIRM

Muscle stem cells, also called satellite cells, make a small, dormant population of cells in muscle tissue that springs to life when muscle is in need of repair. It turns out that these stem cells are not identical clones of each other but instead are a diverse pool of cells.  To understand how the assortment of muscle stem cells might respond differently to the normal wear and tear of aging, versus damage due to injury or disease, the research team used a technology that tracks the fate of individual muscle stem cells within living mice.

The analysis showed a clear but unexpected result. In aging muscle, the muscle stem cells maintained their diversity but their ability to divide and grow declined. However, the opposite result was observed in injured muscle: the muscle stem cell diversity became limited but the capacity to divide was not affected. In a press release, team leader Alessandra Sacco explains the implications of these findings for therapy development:

sacco

Alessandra Sacco, PhD

“This study has shown clear-cut differences in the dynamics of muscle stem cell pools during the aging process compared to a sudden injury. This means that there probably isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to prevent the decline of muscle stem cells. Therapeutic strategies to maintain muscle mass and strength in seniors will most likely need to differ from those for patients with degenerative diseases.”

This report was picked up yesterday by Eureka Alert and published in Cell Stem Cell.

CIRM weekly stem cell roundup: stomach bacteria & cancer; vitamin C may block leukemia; stem cells bring down a 6’2″ 246lb football player

gastric

This is what your stomach glands looks like from the inside:  Credit: MPI for Infection Biology”

Stomach bacteria crank up stem cell renewal, may be link to gastric cancer (Todd Dubnicoff)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori, a type of bacteria that thrives in the harsh acidic conditions of the stomach. Data accumulated over the past few decades shows strong evidence that H. pylori infection increases the risk of stomach cancers. The underlying mechanisms of this link have remained unclear. But research published this week in Nature suggests that the bacteria cause stem cells located in the stomach lining to divide more frequently leading to an increased potential for cancerous growth.

Tumors need to make an initial foothold in a tissue in order to grow and spread. But the cells of our stomach lining are replaced every four days. So, how would H. pylori bacterial infection have time to induce a cancer? The research team – a collaboration between scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and Stanford University – asked that question and found that the bacteria are also able to penetrate down into the stomach glands and infect stem cells whose job it is to continually replenish the stomach lining.

Further analysis in mice revealed that two groups of stem cells exist in the stomach glands – one slowly dividing and one rapidly dividing population. Both stem cell populations respond similarly to an important signaling protein, called Wnt, that sustains stem cell renewal. But the team also discovered a second key stem cell signaling protein called R-spondin that is released by connective tissue underneath the stomach glands. H. pylori infection of these cells causes an increase in R-spondin which shuts down the slowly dividing stem cell population but cranks up the cell division of the rapidly dividing stem cells. First author, Dr. Michal Sigal, summed up in a press release how these results may point to stem cells as the link between bacterial infection and increased risk of stomach cancer:

“Since H. pylori causes life-long infections, the constant increase in stem cell divisions may be enough to explain the increased risk of carcinogenesis observed.”

vitamin-c-1200x630

Vitamin C may have anti-blood cancer properties

Vitamin C is known to have a number of health benefits, from preventing scurvy to limiting the buildup of fatty plaque in your arteries. Now a new study says we might soon be able to add another benefit: it may be able to block the progression of leukemia and other blood cancers.

Researchers at the NYU School of Medicine focused their work on an enzyme called TET2. This is found in hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), the kind of stem cell typically found in bone marrow. The absence of TET2 is known to keep these HSCs in a pre-leukemic state; in effect priming the body to develop leukemia. The researchers showed that high doses of vitamin C can prevent, or even reverse that, by increasing the activity level of TET2.

In the study, in the journal Cell, they showed how they developed mice that could have their levels of TET2 increased or decreased. They then transplanted bone marrow with low levels of TET2 from those mice into healthy, normal mice. The healthy mice started to develop leukemia-like symptoms. However, when the researchers used high doses of vitamin C to restore the activity levels of TET2, they were able to halt the progression of the leukemia.

Now this doesn’t mean you should run out and get as much vitamin C as you can to help protect you against leukemia. In an article in The Scientist, Benjamin Neel, senior author of the study, says while vitamin C does have health benefits,  consuming large doses won’t do you much good:

“They’re unlikely to be a general anti-cancer therapy, and they really should be understood based on the molecular understanding of the many actions vitamin C has in cells.”

However, Neel says these findings do give scientists a new tool to help them target cells before they become leukemic.

Jordan reed

Bad toe forces Jordan Reed to take a knee: Photo courtesy FanRag Sports

Toeing the line: how unapproved stem cell treatment made matters worse for an NFL player  

American football players are tough. They have to be to withstand pounding tackles by 300lb men wearing pads and a helmet. But it wasn’t a crunching hit that took Washington Redskins player Jordan Reed out of the game; all it took to put the 6’2” 246 lb player on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list was a little stem cell injection.

Reed has had a lingering injury problem with the big toe on his left foot. So, during the off-season, he thought he would take care of the issue, and got a stem cell injection in the toe. It didn’t quite work the way he hoped.

In an interview with the Richmond Times Dispatch he said:

“That kind of flared it up a bit on me. Now I’m just letting it calm down before I get out there. I’ve just gotta take my time, let it heal and strengthen up, then get back out there.”

It’s not clear what kind of stem cells Reed got, if they were his own or from a donor. What is clear is that he is just the latest in a long line of athletes who have turned to stem cells to help repair or speed up recovery from an injury. These are treatments that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that have not been tested in a clinical trial to make sure they are both safe and effective.

In Reed’s case the problem seems to be a relatively minor one; his toe is expected to heal and he should be back in action before too long.

Stem cell researcher and avid blogger Dr. Paul Knoepfler wrote he is lucky, others who take a similar approach may not be:

“Fortunately, it sounds like Reed will be fine, but some people have much worse reactions to unproven stem cells than a sore toe, including blindness and tumors. Be careful out there!”