Stanford scientists link problems in nerve cells to schizophrenia

A spherical cluster of hundreds of thousands of brain cells cultured in a lab dish. A team of researchers studied such neuronal clusters to better understand schizophrenia.
Image Credit: Pasca lab

The neurological origins of mental illness continue to remain a mystery and along with it any potential treatments for these conditions. However, Dr. Sergiu Pasca and his team at Stanford University have come one step closer to unlocking these mysteries for schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by disruptions in thought processes, perceptions, emotional responsiveness, and social interactions. 

A common genetic defect called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, or 22q11DS for short, has been linked to an astonishing 30-fold increased risk for developing schizophrenia. With help from CIRM funding, Dr. Pasca and his team have linked this genetic defect to an electrical defect in nerve cells.

To look at this more closely, the Stanford team generated tiny clusters of brain cells, called cortical spheroids which contain brain nerve cells, in a dish using skin cells from 22q11DS carriers and those from normal patients. The team then measured the resting membrane potential of these nerve cells, which is the voltage difference between the inner and outer part of the cell. This measurement is important because it keeps the nerve cells ready to fire while also preventing them from firing at random.

Dr. Pasca and his team found abnormal levels of resting membrane potential in nerve cells in the cortical spheroids made from 22q11DS carriers. They also found that the the 22q11DS-derived nerve cells spontaneously fired four times as frequently as nerve cells derived from normal patients. What’s even more promising is that the team found that treating the 22q11DS-derived nerve cells with any of three different antipsychotic drugs effectively reversed the defects in resting membrane potential and helped in prevent spontaneous firing.

Dr. Sergiu Pasca

In a press release, Dr. Pasca elaborated more on the team’s findings.

“We can’t test hallucinations in a dish. But the fact that the cellular malfunctions we identified in a dish were reversed by drugs that relieve symptoms in people with schizophrenia suggests that these cellular malfunctions could be related to the disorder’s behavioral manifestations.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Medicine.

Stem Cell/Gene Therapy combo heals patients battling rare disorder

Brenden Whittaker and his dog: Photo by Colin McGuire

A few years ago, Brenden Whittaker was running out of time. Brenden was born with a rare condition called x-linked chronic granulomatous disease or XCGD. It meant he lacked a critical part of his immune system that protects against bacterial or fungal infections.

Over 22 years Brenden was in and out of the hospital hundreds of times. Twice he almost died. When antibiotics failed to clear up persistent infections surgeons had to remove parts of his lungs and liver.

Brenden felt he was running out of options. Then he signed up for a clinical trial (funded by CIRM) that would use his own stem cells to correct the problem. More than four years later Brenden is doing just fine.

And he’s not the only one. A new study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, shows that six other patients in the clinical trial are now in remission and have stopped taking any other medications.

Dr. Don Kohn: Photo courtesy UCLA

Don Kohn, the lead researcher on the team from UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, says that in the past the only “cure” for people with CGD was a bone marrow transplant, but that was rarely an option for most patients. In a news release he said finding a perfect match for a transplant was difficult, and even then, patients had to take powerful anti-rejection medications to stop their body rejecting the transplant. So, they developed another approach, using genetically re-engineered stem cells from the patient themselves.

“With this gene therapy, you can use a patient’s own stem cells instead of donor cells for a transplant. This means the cells are perfectly matched to the patient and it should be a much safer transplant, without the risks of rejection.”

The team removed blood stem cells from the patients and, in the lab, corrected the genetic mutation that caused CGD. They then returned those cells to the patients which, because they are stem cells, multiplied and created a new blood supply – one free of CGD – and repaired the immune system.

Brenden was the first of five patients treated in the US. Another four were treated in Europe. All were between the ages of 2 and 27 (CGD patients often die in their 20’s because of the impact of repeated infections).

  • Two patients died because of previously incurred infections
  • Six of the seven surviving patients have discontinued previous treatments
  • Four new patients have since been treated and are currently free of infections

Dr. Kohn said the results are really encouraging: “None of the patients had complications that you might normally see from donor cells and the results were as good as you’d get from a donor transplant — or better.”

The next step is for the researchers to work with the US Food and Drug Administration to get permission to carry out a larger trial, with the eventual goal of getting approval to make it available to all patients who need it.  

Regular readers of our blog will remember that Don Kohn also pioneered a similar approach in treating, and curing, children battling another rare immune disorder, severe combined immunodeficiency or SCID. You can read about that here.

As for Brenden, he is now in college and has his sights set on medical school. In 2016 we profiled him in our Annual Report and ran a long interview with him on the blog where he talked about the joys of mowing the lawn and learning to live without a deadly disease stalking him.

Researchers create a better way to grow blood stem cells

UCLA’s Dr. Hanna Mikkola and Vincenzo Calvanese, lead scientists on the study. Photo courtesy UCLA

Blood stem cells are a vital part of us. They create all the other kinds of blood cells in our body and are used in bone marrow transplants to help people battling leukemia or other blood cancers. The problem is growing these blood stem cells outside the body has always proved challenging. Up till now.

Researchers at UCLA, with CIRM funding, have identified a protein that seems to play a key role in helping blood stem cells renew themselves in the lab. Why is this important? Because being able to create a big supply of these cells could help researchers develop new approaches to treating a wide array of life-threatening diseases.

One of the most important elements that a stem cell has is its ability to self-renew itself over long periods of time. The problem with blood stem cells has been that when they are removed from the body they quickly lose their ability to self-renew and die off.

To discover why this is the case the team at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA analyzed blood stem cells to see which genes turn on and off as those cells turn into other kinds of blood cells – red, white and platelets. They identified one gene, called MLLT3, which seemed to play a key role in helping blood stem cells self-renew.

To test this finding, the researchers took blood stem cells and, in the lab, inserted copies of the MLLT3 gene into them. The modified cells were then able to self-renew at least 12 times; a number far greater than in the past.

Dr. Hanna Mikkola, a senior author of the study says this finding could help advance the field:

“If we think about the amount of blood stem cells needed to treat a patient, that’s a significant number. But we’re not just focusing on quantity; we also need to ensure that the lab-created blood stem cells can continue to function properly by making all blood cell types when transplanted.”

Happily, that seemed to be the case. When they subjected the MLLT3-enhanced blood stem cells to further analysis they found that they appeared to self-renew at a safe rate and didn’t multiply too much or mutate in ways that could lead to leukemia or other blood cancers.

The next steps are to find more efficient and effective ways of keeping the MLLT3 gene active in blood stem cells, so they can develop ways of using this finding in a clinical setting with patients.

Their findings are published in the journal Nature.

Transplanted stem cells used to grow fully functional lungs in mice

Illustration of a human lung

According to organ donation statistics from the Health Resources & Services Administration, over 113,000 men, women, and children are on the national transplant waiting list as of July 2019. Another person is added to the waiting list every 10 minutes and 20 people die each day waiting for a transplant.

As these statistics highlight, there is a tremendous need for obtaining viable organs for people that are in need of a transplant. It is because of this, that scientists and researchers are exploring ways of using stem cells to potentially grow fully functional organs.

Dr. Hiromitsu Nakauchi, Stanford University

In a CIRM-supported study, Dr. Hiromitsu Nakauchi at Stanford University, in collaboration with Dr. Wellington Cardoso at Columbia University, were able to grow fully functional lungs in mouse embryos using transplanted stem cells. The full study, published in Nature Medicine, suggests that it may be possible to grow human lungs in animals and use them for patients in dire need of transplants or to study new lung treatments.

In the study, the researchers took stem cells and implanted them into modified mouse embryos that either lacked the stem cells necessary to form a lung or were not able to produce enough cells to make a lung. It was found that the implanted stem cells formed fully functional lungs that allowed the mice to live well into adulthood. Additionally, there were no signs of the mouse’s body rejecting the lung tissue composed of donor stem cells.

In a press release, Dr. Cardoso expressed optimism for the study and the potential the results hold:

“Millions of people worldwide who suffer from incurable lung diseases die without treatment due to the limited supply of donor lungs for transplantation. Our study shows that it may eventually be possible to develop new strategies for generating human lungs in animals for transplantation as an alternative to waiting for donor lungs.”

3D brain model shows potential for treatment of hypoxic brain injuries in infants

Image of 3D brain cultures in the Sergiu Pasca lab.
Photo courtesy of Timothy Archibald.

A baby’s time in the womb is one of the most crucial periods in terms of its development. The average length of gestation, which is defined as the amount of time in the womb from conception to birth, is approximately 40 weeks. Unfortunately, for reasons not yet fully understood, there are times that babies are born prematurely, which can lead to problems.

These infants can have underdeveloped portions of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for advanced brain functions, including cognition, speech, and the processing of sensory and motor information. The brains of premature infants can be so underdeveloped that they are unable to control breathing. This, in combination with underdeveloped lungs, can lower oxygen levels in the blood, which can lead to hypoxic, or low oxygen related, brain injuries.

In a previous study, doctors Anca and Sergiu Pasca and their colleagues at Stanford developed a technique to create a 3D brain that mimics structural and functional aspects of the developing human brain.

Using this same technique, in a new study with the aid of CIRM funding, the team grew a 3D brain that contained cells and genes similar to the human brain midway through the gestational period. They then exposed this 3D brain to low oxygen levels for 48 hours, restored the oxygen level after this time period, and observed any changes.

It was found that progenitor cells in a region known as the subventricular zone, a region that is critical in the growth of the human cortex, are affected. Progenitor cells are “stem cell like” cells that give rise to mature brain cells such as neurons. They also found that the progenitor cells transitioned from “growth” mode to “survival” mode, causing them to turn into neurons sooner than normal, which leads to fewer neurons in the brain and underdevelopment.

In a press release, Dr. Anca Pasca is quoted as saying,

“In the past 20 years, we’ve made a lot of progress in keeping extremely premature babies alive, but 70% to 80% of them have poor neurodevelopmental outcomes.”

The team then tested a small molecule to see if it could potentially reverse this response to low oxygen levels by keeping the progenitor cells in “growth” mode. The results of this are promising and Dr. Sergiu Pasca is quoted as saying,

“It’s exciting because our findings tell us that pharmacologically manipulating this pathway could interfere with hypoxic injury to the brain, and potentially help with preventing damage.”

The complete findings of this study were published in Nature.

Using 3D printer to develop treatment for spinal cord injury

3d-printed-device

3D printed device

Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) affect approximately 300,000 Americans, with about 18,000 new cases occurring per year. One of these patients, Jake Javier, who we have written about many times over the past several years, received ten million stem cells as part of a CIRM-funded clinical trial and a video about his first year at Cal Poly depicts how these injuries can impact someone’s life.

Currently, there is nothing that completely reverses SCI damage and most treatment is aimed at rehabilitation and empowering patients to lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. Improved treatment options are necessary both to improve patients’ overall quality of life, and to reduce associated healthcare costs.

Scientists at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine and Institute of Engineering in Medicine have made critical progress in providing SCI patients with hope towards a more comprehensive and longer lasting treatment option.

shaochen chen

Prof. Shaochen Chen and his 3D printer

In a study partially funded by CIRM and published in Nature Medicine, Dr. Mark Tuszynski’s and Dr. Shaochen Chen’s groups used a novel 3D printing method to grow a spinal cord in the lab.

Previous studies have seen some success in lab grown neurons or nerve cells, improving SCI in animal models. This new study, however, is innovative both for the speed at which the neurons are printed, and the extent of the neuronal network that is produced.

To achieve this goal, the scientists used a biological scaffold that directs the growth of the neurons so they grow to the correct length and generate a complete neuronal network. Excitingly, their 3D printing technology was so efficient that they were able to grow implants for an animal model in 1.6 seconds, and a human-sized implant in just ten minutes, showing that their technology is scalable for injuries of different sizes.

When they tested the spinal cord implants in rats, they found that not only did the implant repair the damaged spinal cord tissue, but it also provided sustained improvement in motor function up to six months after implantation.

Just as importantly, they also observed that blood vessels had infiltrated the implanted tissue. The absence of vascularized tissue is one of the main reasons engineered implants do not last long in the host, because blood vessels are necessary to provide nutrients and support tissue growth. In this case, the animal’s body solved the problem on its own.

In a press release, one of the co-first authors of the paper, Dr. Kobi Koffler, states the importance and novelty of this work:

“This marks another key step toward conducting clinical trials to repair spinal cord injuries in people. The scaffolding provides a stable, physical structure that supports consistent engraftment and survival of neural stem cells. It seems to shield grafted stem cells from the often toxic, inflammatory environment of a spinal cord injury and helps guide axons through the lesion site completely.”

In order to make this technology viable for human clinical trials, the scientists are testing their technology in larger animal models before moving into humans, as well as investigating how to improve the longevity of the neuronal network by introducing proteins into the scaffolds.

 

 

New approach could help turn back the clock and reverse damage for stroke patients

stroke

Stroke: courtesy WebMD

Stroke is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the US. Every year almost 800,000 people suffer from a stroke. The impact on their lives, and the lives of those around them can be devastating.

Right now the only treatment approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tissue plasminogen activator or tPA. This helps dissolve the blood clot causing most strokes and restores blood flow to the brain. However, to be fully effective this has to be administered within about 3-4 hours after the stroke. Many people are unable to get to the hospital in time and as a result suffer long-term damage, damage that for most people has been permanent.

But now a new study in Nature Medicine shows that might not be the case, and that this damage could even be reversible.

The research, done by a team at the University of Southern California (USC) uses a one-two punch combination of stem cells and a protein that helps those cells turn into neurons, the cells in the brain damaged by a stroke.

First, the researchers induced a stroke in mice and then transplanted human neural stem cells alongside the damaged brain tissue. They then added in a dose of the protein 3K3A-APC or a placebo.

hey found that mice treated with 3K3A-APC had 16 times more human stem-cell derived neurons than the mice treated with the placebo. Those neurons weren’t just sitting around doing nothing. USC’s Berislav Zlokovic, senior author of the paper, says they were actively repairing the stroke-induced damage.

“We showed that 3K3A-APC helps the grafted stem cells convert into neurons and make structural and functional connections with the host’s nervous system. No one in the stroke field has ever shown this, so I believe this is going to be the gold standard for future studies. Functional deficits after five weeks of stroke were minimized, and the mice were almost back to normal in terms of motor and sensorimotor functions. Synapses formed between transplanted cells and host cells, so there is functional activation and cooperation of transplanted cells in the host circuitry.”

The researchers wanted to make sure the transplanted cell-3K3A-ACP combination was really the cause of the improvement in the mice so they then used what’s called an “assassin toxin” to kill the neurons they had created. That reversed the improvements in the treated mice, leaving them comparable to the untreated mice. All this suggests the neurons had become an integral part of the mouse’s brain.

So how might this benefit people? You may remember that earlier this summer Stanford researchers produced a paper showing they had helped some 18 stroke patients, by injecting stem cells from donor bone marrow into their brain. The improvements were significant, including in at least one case regaining the ability to walk. We blogged about that work here

In that study, however, the cells did not become neurons nor did they seem to remain in the brain for an extended period. It’s hoped this new work can build on that by giving researchers an additional tool, the 3K3A-ACP protein, to help the transplanted cells convert to neurons and become integrated into the brain.

One of the other advantages of using this protein is that it has already been approved by the FDA for use in people who have experienced an ischemic stroke, which accounts for about 87 percent of all strokes.

The USC team now hope to get approval from the FDA to see if they can replicate their experiences in mice in people, through a Phase 2 clinical trial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stem cells could offer hope for deadly childhood muscle wasting disease

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

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

Crucial discovery

Duchenne MD team

DMD Research team: Photo courtesy Ottawa Hospital Research Inst.

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

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

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

Loss and confused

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

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