Stem cell agency funds Phase 3 clinical trial for Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS

At CIRM we don’t have a disease hierarchy list that we use to guide where our funding goes. We don’t rank a disease by how many people suffer from it, if it affects children or adults, or how painful it is. But if we did have that kind of hierarchy you can be sure that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, would be high on that list.

ALS is a truly nasty disease. It attacks the neurons, the cells in our brain and spinal cord that tell our muscles what to do. As those cells are destroyed we lose our ability to walk, to swallow, to talk, and ultimately to breathe.

As Dr. Maria Millan, CIRM’s interim President and CEO, said in a news release, it’s a fast-moving disease:

“ALS is a devastating disease with an average life expectancy of less than five years, and individuals afflicted with this condition suffer an extreme loss in quality of life. CIRM’s mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs and, in keeping with this mission, our objective is to find a treatment for patients ravaged by this neurological condition for which there is currently no cure.”

Having given several talks to ALS support groups around the state, I have had the privilege of meeting many people with ALS and their families. I have seen how quickly the disease works and the devastation it brings. I’m always left in awe by the courage and dignity with which people bear it.

BrainStorm

I thought of those people, those families, today, when our governing Board voted to invest $15.9 million in a Phase 3 clinical trial for ALS run by BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics. BrainStorm is using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) that are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow. This reduces the risk of the patient’s immune system fighting the therapy.

After being removed, the MSCs are then modified in the laboratory to  boost their production of neurotrophic factors, proteins which are known to help support and protect the cells destroyed by ALS. The therapy, called NurOwn, is then re-infused back into the patient.

In an earlier Phase 2 clinical trial, NurOwn showed that it was safe and well tolerated by patients. It also showed evidence that it can help stop, or even reverse  the progression of the disease over a six month period, compared to a placebo.

CIRM is already funding one clinical trial program focused on treating ALS – that’s the work of Dr. Clive Svendsen and his team at Cedars Sinai, you can read about that here. Being able to add a second project, one that is in a Phase 3 clinical trial – the last stage before, hopefully, getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for wider use – means we are one step closer to being able to offer people with ALS a treatment that can help them.

Diane Winokur, the CIRM Board Patient Advocate member for ALS, says this is something that has been a long time coming:

CIRM Board member and ALS Patient Advocate Diane Winokur

“I lost two sons to ALS.  When my youngest son was diagnosed, he was confident that I would find something to save him.  There was very little research being done for ALS and most of that was very limited in scope.  There was one drug that had been developed.  It was being released for compassionate use and was scheduled to be reviewed by the FDA in the near future.  I was able to get the drug for Douglas.  It didn’t really help him and it was ultimately not approved by the FDA.

When my older son was diagnosed five years later, he too was convinced I would find a therapy.  Again, I talked to everyone in the field, searched every related study, but could find nothing promising.

I am tenacious by nature, and after Hugh’s death, though tempted to give up, I renewed my search.  There were more people, labs, companies looking at neurodegenerative diseases.

These two trials that CIRM is now funding represent breakthrough moments for me and for everyone touched by ALS.  I feel that they are a promising beginning.  I wish it had happened sooner.  In a way, though, they have validated Douglas and Hugh’s faith in me.”

These therapies are not a cure for ALS. At least not yet. But what they will do is hopefully help buy people time, and give them a sense of hope. For a disease that leaves people desperately short of both time and hope, that would be a precious gift. And for people like Diane Winokur, who have fought so hard to find something to help their loved ones, it’s a vindication that those efforts have not been in vain.

Scientist grow diseased brain cells in bulk to study Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease

Daily trips to the local grocery store have become a thing of the past for many with the rise of wholesale stores like Costco and online giants like Amazon. Buying in bulk is attractive for people who lead busy lives, have large families, or just love having endless pairs of clean socks.

Scientists who study neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s use disease-in-a-dish models that are much like the daily visits to the nearby Safeway. They can make diseased brain cells, or neurons, from human pluripotent stem cells and study them in the lab. But often, they can’t generate large enough quantities of cells to do important experiments like test new drugs or develop diagnostic platforms to identify disease at an earlier age.

What scientists need is a Costco for brain cells, a source that can make diseased brain cells in bulk. Such a method would open a new avenue of research into what causes neurodegeneration and how the aging process affects its progression.

This week, this need was answered. A team of researchers from Lund University in Sweden developed a method that can efficiently generate neurons from patients with a range of neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The study was published in EMBO Molecular Medicine and was led by senior author Dr. Malin Parmar.

Diseased neurons made by the Lund University team. (Photo, Kennet Ruona)

Parmar and her team took an alternative approach to making their neurons. Their technology involves converting human skin cells into neurons without reprogramming the skin cells back to a pluripotent stem cell state first. This process is called “direct conversion” and is considered an effective shortcut for generating mature cells like neurons in a dish. Direct conversion of skin cells into neurons was first published by Dr. Marius Wernig, a CIRM-grantee and professor at Stanford University.

There is also scientific evidence suggesting that reprogramming patient cells back to a pluripotent state wipes out the effects of aging in those cells and has a Benjamin Button-like effect on the resulting neurons. By directly converting patient skin cells into neurons, many of these aging “signatures” are retained and the resulting neurons are more representative of the aging brain.

So how did they make brain cells in bulk? Parmar explained their method in a Lund University news release,

Malin Parmar

“Primarily, we inhibited a protein, REST, involved in establishing identity in cells that are not nerve cells. After limiting this protein’s impact in the cells during the conversion process, we’ve seen completely different results.”

 

Besides blocking REST, the team also turned on the production of two proteins, Ascl1 and Brn2, that are important for the development of neurons. This combination of activating pro-neural genes and silencing anti-neural genes was successful at converting skin cells into neurons on a large scale. Parmar further explained,

“We’ve been playing around with changing the dosage of the other components in the previous method, which also proved effective. Overall, the efficiency is remarkable. We can now generate almost unlimited amounts of neurons from one skin biopsy.”

As mentioned previously, this technology is valuable because it provides better brain disease models for scientists to study and to screen for new drugs that could treat or delay disease onset. Additionally, scientists can study the effects of the aging in the brain at different stages of neurodegeneration. Aging is a well-known risk factor for many neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer’s, so the ability to make large quantities of brain cells from elderly Alzheimer’s patients will unlock new clues into how age influences disease.

Co-author Dr. Johan Jakobsson concluded,

Johan Jakobsson

“This takes us one step closer to reality, as we can now look inside the human neurons and see what goes on inside the cell in these diseases. If all goes well, this could fundamentally change the field of research, as it helps us better understand the real mechanisms of the disease. We believe that many laboratories around the world would like to start testing on these cells to get closer to the diseases.”

For more on this study, check out this short video provided by Lund University.

New stem cell technique gives brain support cells a starring role

Gage et al

The Salk team. From left: Krishna Vadodaria, Lynne Moore, Carol Marchetto, Arianna Mei, Fred H. Gage, Callie Fredlender, Ruth Keithley, Ana Diniz Mendes. Photo courtesy Salk Institute

Astrocytes are some of the most common cells in the brain and central nervous system but they often get overlooked because they play a supporting role to the more glamorous neurons (even though they outnumber them around 50 to 1). But a new way of growing those astrocytes outside the brain could help pave the way for improved treatments for stroke, Alzheimer’s and other neurological problems.

Astrocytes – which get their name because of their star shape (Astron – Greek for “star” and “kyttaron” meaning cell) – have a number of key functions in the brain. They provide physical and metabolic support for neurons; they help supply energy and fuel to neurons; and they help with detoxification and injury repair, particularly in terms of reducing inflammation.

Studying these astrocytes in the lab has not been easy, however, because existing methods of producing them have been slow, cumbersome and not altogether effective at replicating their many functions.

Finding a better way

Now a team at the Salk Institute, led by CIRM-funded Professor Fred “Rusty” Gage, has developed a way of using stem cells to create astrocytes that is faster and more effective.

Their work is published in the journal Stem Cell Reports. In a news release, Gage says this is an important discovery:

“This work represents a big leap forward in our ability to model neurological disorders in a dish. Because inflammation is the common denominator in many brain disorders, better understanding astrocytes and their interactions with other cell types in the brain could provide important clues into what goes wrong in disease.”

Stylized microscopy image of an astrocyte (red) and neuron (green). (Salk Institute)

In a step by step process the Salk team used a series of chemicals, called growth factors, to help coax stem cells into becoming, first, generic brain cells, and ultimately astrocytes. These astrocytes not only behaved like the ones in our brain do, but they also have a particularly sensitive response to inflammation. This gives the team a powerful tool in helping develop new treatment to disorders of the brain.

But wait, there’s more!

As if that wasn’t enough, the researchers then used the same technique to create astrocytes from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – adult cells, such as skin, that have been re-engineered to have the ability to turn into any other kind of cell in the body. Those man-made astrocytes also showed the same characteristics as natural ones do.

Krishna Vadodaria, one of the lead authors on the paper, says having these iPSC-created astrocytes gives them a completely new tool to help explore brain development and disease, and hopefully develop new treatments for those diseases.

“The exciting thing about using iPSCs is that if we get tissue samples from people with diseases like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s or depression, we will be able to study how their astrocytes behave, and how they interact with neurons.”

Stem cell-derived, 3D brain tissue reveals autism insights

Studying human brain disorders is one of the most challenging fields in biomedical research. Besides the fact that the brain is incredibly complex, it’s just plain difficult to peer into it.

It’s neither practical nor ethical to access the cells of the adult brain. Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist.

For one thing, it’s not practical, let alone ethical, to drill into an affected person’s skull and collect brain cells to learn about their disease. Another issue is that the faulty cellular and molecular events that cause brain disorders are, in many cases, thought to trace back to fetal brain development before a person is even born. So, just like a detective looking for evidence at the scene of a crime, neurobiologists can only piece together clues after the disease has already occurred.

The good news is these limitations are falling away thanks to human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are generated from an individual’s easily accessible skin cells. Last week’s CIRM-funded research report out of Stanford University is a great example of how this method is providing new human brain insights.

Using brain tissue grown from patient-derived iPSCs, Dr. Sergiu Pasca and his team recreated the types of nerve cell circuits that form during the late stages of pregnancy in the fetal cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain that is responsible for functions including memory, language and emotion. With this system, they observed irregularities in the assembly of brain circuitry that provide new insights into the cellular and molecular causes of neuropsychiatric disorders like autism.

Recreating interactions between different regions of the development from skin-derived iPSCs
Image: Sergui Pasca Lab, Stanford University

Holy Brain Balls! Recreating the regions of our brain with skin cells
Two years ago, Pasca’s group figured out a way grow iPSCs into tiny, three-dimensional balls of cells that mimic the anatomy of the cerebral cortex. The team showed that these brain spheres contain the expected type of nerve cells, or neurons, as well as other cells that support neuron function.

Still, the complete formation of the cortex’s neuron circuits requires connections with another type of neuron that lies in a separate region of the brain. These other neurons travel large distances in a developing fetus’ brain over several months to reach the cortical cortex. Once in place, these migrating neurons have an inhibitory role and can block the cortical cortex nerve signals. Turning off a nerve signal is just as important as turning one on. In fact, imbalances in these opposing on and off nerve signals are suspected to play a role in epilepsy and autism.

So, in the current Nature study, Pasca’s team devised two different iPSC-derived brain sphere recipes: one that mimics the neurons found in the cortical cortex and another that mimics the region that contains the inhibitory neurons. Then the researchers placed the two types of spheres in the same lab dish and within three days, they spontaneously fused together.

Under video microscopy, the migration of the inhibitory neurons into the cortical cortex was observed. In cells derived from healthy donors, the migration pattern of inhibitory neurons looked like a herky-jerkey car being driven by a student driver: the neurons would move toward the cortical cortex sphere but suddenly stop for a while and then start their migration again.

“We’ve never been able to recapitulate these human-brain developmental events in a dish before,” said Pasca in a press release, “the process happens in the second half of pregnancy, so viewing it live is challenging. Our method lets us see the entire movie, not just snapshots.”

New insights into Timothy Syndrome may also uncover molecular basis of autism
To study the migration of the inhibitory neurons in the context of a neuropsychiatric disease, iPSCs were generated from skin samples of patients with Timothy syndrome, a rare genetic disease which carries a wide-range of symptoms including autism as well as heart defects.

The formation of brain spheres from the patient-derived iPSCs proceeded normally. But the next part of the experiment revealed an abnormal migration pattern of the neurons.  The microscopy movies showed that the start and stop behavior of neurons happened more frequently but the speed of the migration slowed. The fascinating video below shows the differences in the migration patterns of a healthy (top) versus a Timothy sydrome-derived neuron (bottom). The end result was a disruption of the typically well-organized neuron circuitry.

Now, the gene that’s mutated in Timothy Syndrome is responsible for the production of a protein that helps shuttle calcium in and out of neurons. The flow of calcium is critical for many cell functions and adding drugs that slow down this calcium flux restored the migration pattern of the neurons. So, the researchers can now zero in their studies on this direct link between the disease-causing mutation and a specific breakdown in neuron function.

The exciting possibility is that, because this system is generated from a patient’s skin cells, experiments could be run to precisely understand each individual’s neuropsychiatric disorder. Pasca is eager to see what new insights lie ahead:

“Our method of assembling and carefully characterizing neuronal circuits in a dish is opening up new windows through which we can view the normal development of the fetal human brain. More importantly, it will help us see how this goes awry in individual patients.”

Scientists make stem cell-derived nerve cells damaged in spinal cord injury

The human spinal cord is an information highway that relays movement-related instructions from the brain to the rest of the body and sensory information from the body back to the brain. What keeps this highway flowing is a long tube of nerve cells and support cells bundled together within the spine.

When the spinal cord is injured, the nerve cells are damaged and can die – cutting off the flow of information to and from the brain. As a result, patients experience partial or complete paralysis and loss of sensation depending on the extent of their injury.

Unlike lizards which can grow back lost tails, the spinal cord cannot robustly regenerate damaged nerve cells and recreate lost connections. Because of this, scientists are looking to stem cells for potential solutions that can rebuild injured spines.

Making spinal nerve cells from stem cells

Yesterday, scientists from the Gladstone Institutes reported that they used human pluripotent stem cells to create a type of nerve cell that’s damaged in spinal cord injury. Their findings offer a new potential stem cell-based strategy for restoring movement in patients with spinal cord injury. The study was led by Gladstone Senior Investigator Dr. Todd McDevitt, a CIRM Research Leadership awardee, and was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The type of nerve cell they generated is called a spinal interneuron. These are specialized nerve cells in the spinal cord that act as middlemen – transporting signals between sensory neurons that connect to the brain to the movement-related, or motor, neurons that connect to muscles. Different types of interneurons exist in the brain and spinal cord, but the Gladstone team specifically created V2a interneurons, which are important for controlling movement.

V2a interneurons extend long distances in the spinal cord. Injuries to the spine can damage these important cells, severing the connection between the brain and the body. In a Gladstone news release, Todd McDevitt explained why his lab is particularly interested in making these cells to treat spinal cord injury.

Todd McDevitt, Gladstone Institutes

“Interneurons can reroute after spinal cord injuries, which makes them a promising therapeutic target. Our goal is to rewire the impaired circuitry by replacing damaged interneurons to create new pathways for signal transmission around the site of the injury.”

 

Transplanting nerve cells into the spines of mice

After creating V2a interneurons from human stem cells using a cocktail of chemicals in the lab, the team tested whether these interneurons could be successfully transplanted into the spinal cords of normal mice. Not only did the interneurons survive, they also set up shop by making connections with other nerve cells in the spinal cord. The mice that received the transplanted cells didn’t show differences in their movement suggesting that the transplanted cells don’t cause abnormalities in motor function.

Co-author on the paper, Dylan McCreedy, described how the transplanted stem cell-derived cells behaved like developing V2a interneurons in the spine.

“We were very encouraged to see that the transplanted cells sprouted long distances in both directions—a key characteristic of V2a interneurons—and that they started to connect with the relevant host neurons.”

Todd McDevitt (right), Jessica Butts (center) and Dylan McCreedy (left) created a special type of neuron from human stem cells that could potentially repair spinal cord injuries. (Photo: Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone)

A new clinical strategy?

Looking forward, the Gladstone team plans to test whether these V2a interneurons can improve movement in mice with spinal cord injury. If results look promising in mice, this strategy of transplanting V2a interneurons could be translated into human clinic trials although much more time and research are needed to get there.

Trials testing stem cell-based treatments for spinal cord injury are already ongoing. Many of them involve transplanting progenitor cells that develop into the different types of cells in the spine, including nerve and support cells. These progenitor cells are also thought to secrete important growth factors that help regenerate damaged tissue in the spine.

CIRM is funding one such clinical trial sponsored by Asterias Biotherapeutics. The company is transplanting oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (which make nerve support cells called oligodendrocytes) into patients with severe spinal cord injuries in their neck. The trial has reported encouraging preliminary results in all six patients that received a dose of 10 million cells. You can read more about this trial here.

What the Gladstone study offers is a different stem cell-based strategy for treating spinal cord injury – one that produces a specific type of spinal nerve cell that can reestablish important connections in the spinal cord essential for movement.

For more on this study, watch the Gladstone’s video abstract “Discovery Offers New Hope to Repair Spinal Cord.


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Could the Answer to Treating Parkinson’s Disease Come From Within the Brain?

Sometimes a solution to a disease doesn’t come in the form of a drug or a stem cell therapy, but from within ourselves.

Yesterday, scientists from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden reported an alternative strategy for treating Parkinson’s disease that involves reprogramming specific cells in the brain into the nerve cells killed off by the disease. Their method, which involves delivering reprogramming genes into brain cells called astrocytes, was able to alleviate motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease in mice.

What is Parkinson’s Disease and how is it treated?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that’s characterized by the death of dopamine-producing nerve cells (called dopaminergic neurons) in an area of the brain that controls movement.

Dopaminergic neurons grown in a culture dish. (Image courtesy of Faria Zafar, Parkinson’s Institute).

PD patients experience tremors in their hands, arms and legs, have trouble starting and stopping movement, struggle with maintaining balance and have issues with muscle stiffness. These troublesome symptoms are caused by a lack dopamine, a chemical made by dopaminergic neurons, which signals to the part of the brain that controls how a person initiates and coordinates movement.

Over 10 million people in the world are affected by PD and current therapies only treat the symptoms of the disease rather than prevent its progression. Many of these treatments involve drugs that replace the lost dopamine in the brain, but these drugs lose their effectiveness over time as the disease kills off more neurons, and they come with their own set of side effects.

Another strategy for treating Parkinson’s is replacing the lost dopaminergic neurons through cell-based therapies. However this research is still in its early stages and would require patients to undergo immunosuppressive therapy because the stem cell transplants would likely be allogeneic (from a donor) rather than autologous (from the same individual).

Drug and cell-based therapies both involve taking something outside the body and putting it in, hoping that it does the right thing and prevents the disease. But what about using what’s already inside the human body to fight off PD?

This brings us to today’s study where scientists reprogrammed brain cells in vivo (meaning inside a living organism) to produce dopamine in mice with symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s. Their method, which was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, was successful in alleviating some of the Parkinson’s-related movement problems the mice had. This study was funded in part by a CIRM grant and received a healthy amount of coverage in the media including STATnews, San Diego Union-Tribune and Scientific American.

Reprogramming the brain to make more dopamine

Since Shinya Yamanaka published his seminal paper on reprogramming adult somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, scientists have taken the building blocks of his technology a step further to reprogram one adult cell type into another. This process is called “direct reprogramming” or “transdifferentiation”. It involves delivering a specific cocktail of genes into cells that rewrite the cells identity, effectively turning them into the cell type desired.

The Karolinska team found that three genes: NEUROD1, ASCL1 and LMX1A combined with a microRNA miR218 were able to reprogram human astrocytes into induced dopaminergic neurons (iDANs) in a lab dish. These neurons looked and acted like the real thing and gave the scientists hope that this combination of factors could reprogram astrocytes into iDANs in the brain.

The next step was to test these factors in mice with Parkinson’s disease. These mice were treated with a drug that killed off their dopaminergic neurons giving them Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The team used viruses to deliver the reprogramming cocktail to astrocytes in the brain. After a few weeks, the scientists observed that some of the “infected” astrocytes developed into iDANs and these newly reprogrammed neurons functioned properly, and more importantly, helped reverse some of the motor symptoms observed in these mice.

This study offers a new potential way to treat Parkinson’s by reprogramming cells in the brain into the neurons that are lost to the disease. While this research is still in its infancy, the scientists plan to improve the safety of their technology so that it can eventually be tested in humans.

Bonus Blog Interview for World Parkinson’s Day

Ernest Arenas, Karolinska Institutet

In honor of World Parkinson’s day (April 11th), I’m providing a bonus blog interview about this research. I reached out to the senior author of this study, Dr. Ernest Arenas, to ask him a few more questions about his publication and the future studies his team is planning.

Q) What are the major findings of your current study and how do they advance research on Parkinson’s disease?

The current treatment for Parkinson’s disease (PD) is symptomatic and does not change the course of the disease. Cell replacement therapies, such as direct in vivo reprogramming of in situ [local] astrocytes into dopamine (DA) neurons, work by substituting the cells lost by disease and have the potential to halt or even reverse motor alterations in PD.

Q) Can you comment on the potential for gene therapy treatments for Parkinson’s patients?

We see direct in vivo reprogramming of brain astrocytes into dopamine neurons in situ as a possible future alternative to DA cell transplantation. This method represents a gene therapy approach to cell replacement since we use a virus to deliver four reprogramming factors. In this method, the donor cells are in the host brain and there is no need to search for donor cells and no cell transplantation or immunosuppression. The method for the moment is an experimental prototype and much more needs to be done in order to improve efficiency, safety and to translate it to humans.

Q) Will reprogrammed iDANs be susceptible to Parkinson’s disease over time?

As any other cell replacement therapy, the cells would be, in principle, susceptible to Parkinson’s disease. It has been found that PD catches up with transplanted cells in 15-20 years. We think that this is a sufficiently long therapeutic window.

In addition, direct in vivo reprogramming may also be performed with drug-inducible constructs that could be activated years after, as disease progresses. This might allow adding more cells by turning on the reprogramming factors with pharmacological treatment to the host. This was not tested in our study but the basic technology to develop such strategies currently exist.

Q) What are your plans for future studies and translating this research towards the clinic?

In our experiments, we used transgenic mice in order to test our approach and to ensure that we only reprogrammed astrocytes. There is a lot that still needs to be done in order to develop this approach as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. This includes improving the efficiency and the safety of the method, as well as developing a strategy suitable for therapy in humans. This can be achieved by further improving the reprogramming cocktail, by using a virus with a selective tropism [affinity] for astrocytes and that do not incorporate the constructs into the DNA of the host cell, as well as using constructs with astrocyte-specific promoters and capable of self-regulating depending on the cell context.

Our study demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to use direct reprogramming of host brain cells in order to rescue neurological symptoms. These results indicate that direct reprogramming has the potential to become a novel therapeutic approach for Parkinson’s disease and opens new opportunities for the treatment of patients with neurological disorders.

Rhythmic brain circuits built from stem cells

The TV commercial is nearly 20 years old but I remember it vividly: a couple is driving down a street when they suddenly realize the music on their tape deck is in sync with the repetitive activity on the street. From the guy casually dribbling a basketball to people walking along the sidewalk to the delivery people passing packages out of their truck, everything and everyone is moving rhythmically to the beat.

The ending tag line was, “Sometimes things just come together,” which is quite true. Many of our basic daily activities like breathing and walking just come together as a result of repetitive movement. It’s easy to take them for granted but those rhythmic patterns ultimately rely on very intricate, interconnected signals between nerve cells, also called neurons, in the brain and spinal cord.

Circuitoids: a neural network in a lab dish

A CIRM-funded study published yesterday in eLife by Salk Institute scientists reports on a method to mimic these repetitive signals in a lab dish using neurons grown from embryonic stem cells. This novel cell circuitry system gives the researchers a tool for gaining new insights into neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and ALS, and may even provide a means to fix neurons damaged by injury or disease.

The researchers changed or specialized mouse embryonic stem cells into neurons that either stimulate nerve signals, called excitatory neurons, or neurons that block nerve signals, called inhibitory neurons. Growing these groups of cells together led to spontaneous rhythmic nerve signals. These clumps of cells containing about 50,000 neurons each were dubbed circuitoids by the team.

pfaff-circutoid-cropped

Confocal microscope immunofluorescent image of a spinal cord neural circuit made entirely from stem cells and termed a “circuitoid.” Credit: Salk Institute.

Making neural networks dance to a different beat

A video produced by the Salk Institute (see below), shows some fascinating microscopy visualizations of these circuitoids’ repetitive signals. In the video, team leader Samuel Pfaff explains that changing the ratio of excitatory vs inhibitory neurons had noticeable effects on the rhythm of the nerve impulses:

“What we were able to do is combine different ratios of cell types and study properties of the rhythmicity of the circuitoid. And that rhythmicity could be very tightly control depending on the cellular composition of the neural networks that we were forming. So we could regulate the speed [of the rhythmicity] which is kind of equivalent to how fast you’re walking.”

It’s possible that the actual neural networks in our brains have the flexibility to vary the ratio of the active excitatory to inhibitory neurons as a way to allow adjustments in the body’s repetitive movements. But the complexity of those networks in the human brain are staggering which is why these circuitoids could help:

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

“It’s still very difficult to contemplate how large groups of neurons with literally billions if not trillions of connections take information and process it,” says Pfaff in a press release. “But we think that developing this kind of simple circuitry in a dish will allow us to extract some of the principles of how real brain circuits operate. With that basic information maybe we can begin to understand how things go awry in disease.”

Using stem cells to fix bad behavior in the brain

 

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Gladstone Institutes Steven Finkbeiner and Gaia Skibinski: Photo courtesy Chris Goodfellow, Gladstone Institutes

Diseases of the brain have many different names, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to ALS and Huntington’s, but they often have similar causes. Researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco are using that knowledge to try and find an approach that might be effective against all of these diseases. In a new CIRM-funded study, they have identified one protein that could help do just that.

Many neurodegenerative diseases are caused by faulty proteins, which start to pile up and cause damage to neurons, the brain cells that are responsible for processing and transmitting information. Ultimately, the misbehaving proteins cause those cells to die.

The researchers at the Gladstone found a way to counter this destructive process by using a protein called Nrf2. They used neurons from humans (made from induced pluripotent stem cells – iPSCs – hence the stem cell connection here) and rats. They then tested these cells in neurons that were engineered to have two different kinds of mutations found in  Parkinson’s disease (PD) plus the Nrf2 protein.

Using a unique microscope they designed especially for this study, they were able to track those transplanted neurons and monitor what happened to them over the course of a week.

The neurons that expressed Nrf2 were able to render one of those PD-causing proteins harmless, and remove the other two mutant proteins from the brain cells.

In a news release to accompany the study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, first author Gaia Skibinski, said Nrf2 acts like a house-cleaner brought in to tidy up a mess:

“Nrf2 coordinates a whole program of gene expression, but we didn’t know how important it was for regulating protein levels until now. Over-expressing Nrf2 in cellular models of Parkinson’s disease resulted in a huge effect. In fact, it protects cells against the disease better than anything else we’ve found.”

Steven Finkbeiner, the senior author on the study and a Gladstone professor, said this model doesn’t just hold out hope for treating Parkinson’s disease but for treating a number of other neurodegenerative problems:

“I am very enthusiastic about this strategy for treating neurodegenerative diseases. We’ve tested Nrf2 in models of Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS, and it is the most protective thing we’ve ever found. Based on the magnitude and the breadth of the effect, we really want to understand Nrf2 and its role in protein regulation better.”

The next step is to use this deeper understanding to identify other proteins that interact with Nrf2, and potentially find ways to harness that knowledge for new therapies for neurodegenerative disorders.

Measuring depression with non-invasive imaging of new brain cells

For most of the 20th century, scientists thought you’re basically stuck with the brain cells you’re born with. “Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated”, is how Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, described nerve cells, aka neurons, in the adult brain. But, over the past few decades, it’s become clear that stem cells are present in the brain and produce new neurons over the course of our lives.

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Hippocampus (in red)
Image: Life Science Databases

This better understanding of brain biology opened up new insights into brain function. For instance, a reduced volume of the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning and memory, is linked to depression and the use of anti-depressant drugs like Prozac have been shown to trigger the growth of new neurons in this part of the brain.

Now, researchers at the RIKEN institute in Japan have developed a non-invasive imaging method – so far, just in rats – to track the generation of new neurons from brain stem cells.  This study, reported in the Journal of Neuroscience, may provide new means to diagnose depression and to monitor the effectiveness of drugs in ways that aren’t currently possible.

A PET project to track new brain cells

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PET scan of human brain
Image: Wikipedia

The scientists focused on the use of positron emitting tomography (PET) imaging, which involves the injecting a radioactive tracer, designed to target an organ or a specific area of an organ, into the blood. The use of this type of tracer is routine in medical imaging and the radioactivity decays so fast that it’s essentially gone within 24 hours. The radioactive signal that’s emitted out from the body is then detected with PET scanning and reveals the precise location of the tracer within the body or organ. But PET scanning of neurogenesis in the brain had proved to be difficult – no definitive signals were observed. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is also a no-go because it requires the risky injection of a tracer directly into the brain.

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PET scanner. Image: Jacoby Werther

The RIKEN team pinpointed the stumbling block: the lack of signal was due to the presence of proteins, called drug transporters, that continually pump the radioactive tracers out of the brain and back into the blood. When they re-ran the PET scan using a clinically available drug that blocks the transporter proteins, a neurogenesis signal was picked up.

Prozac helps stimulate new brain cell growth
With this obstacle overcome, the team tested out their technique. They gave one group of rats corticosterone, a stress hormone, for a month. This hormone is known to reduce neurogenesis and create depression-like behavior in the animals. They gave a second group of rats corticosterone plus Prozac. Sure enough, the PET scan signal was able to measure a decrease in neurogenesis in the corticosterone only group but also a recovery in neurogenesis in the group that received the hormone plus Prozac. Follow up analysis of rat brain slices confirmed that compared to untreated animals, neurogenesis was reduced 45% in the corticosterone group but no reduction was observed when Prozac was also included.

In a news release picked up by Nanowerk, team lead Yosky Kataoka discussed the game-changer possibilities of their new method:

“This is a very interesting finding because it has been a long-time dream to find a noninvasive test that can give objective evidence of depression and simultaneously show whether drugs are working in a given patient. We have shown that it is possible, at least in experimental animals, to use PET to show the presence of depression and the effectiveness of drugs… Since it is known that these same brain regions are involved in depression in the human brain, we would like to try this technique in the clinic and see whether it turns out to be effective in humans as well.”

Salk scientists explain why brain cells are genetically diverse

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I’ve always wondered why some sets of genetically identical twins become not so identical later in life. Sometimes they differ in appearance. Other times, one twin is healthy while the other is plagued with a serious disease. These differences can be explained by exposure to different environmental factors over time, but there could also be a genetic explanation involving our brains.

The brain is composed of approximately 100 billion cells called neurons, each with a DNA blueprint that contains instructions that determine the function of these neurons in the brain. Originally it was thought that all cells, including neurons, have the same DNA. But more recently, scientists discovered that the brain is genetically diverse and that neurons within the same brain can have slightly different DNA blueprints, which could give them slightly different functions.

Jumping genes and genetic diversity

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Fred “Rusty” Gage: Photo courtesy Salk Institute

Why and how neurons have differences in their DNA are questions that Salk Institute professor Fred Gage has pursued for more than a decade. In 2005, his lab discovered a mechanism during neural development that causes differences in the DNA of neurons. As a brain stem cell develops into a neuron, long interspersed nuclear elements (L1s), which are small pieces of DNA, copy and paste themselves, seemingly at random, throughout a neuron’s genome.

These elements were originally dubbed “jumping genes” because of their ability to hop around and insert themselves into DNA. It turns out that L1s do more than copy and paste themselves to create changes in DNA, they also can delete chunks of DNA. In a CIRM-funded study published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Gage and colleagues at the Salk Institute reported new insights into L1 activity and how it creates genetic diversity in the brain.

Copy, paste, delete

Gage and his team had clues that L1s can cause DNA deletions in neurons back in 2013. They used a technique called single-cell sequencing to record the sequence of individual neuronal genomes and saw that some of their genomes had large sections of DNA added or missing.

They thought that L1s could be the reason for these insertions and deletions, but didn’t have proof until their current study, which used an improved method to identify areas of the neuronal genome modified by L1s. This method, combined with a computer algorithm that can easily tell the difference between various types of L1 modifications, revealed that areas of the genome with L1s were susceptible to DNA cutting caused by enzymes that home in on the L1 sequences. These breaks in the DNA then cause the observed deletions.

Gage explained their findings in a news release:

“In 2013, we discovered that different neurons within the same brain have various complements of DNA, suggesting that they function slightly differently from each other even within the same person. This recent study reveals a new and surprising form of variation that will help us understand the role of L1s, not only in healthy brains but in those affected by schizophrenia and autism.”

Jennifer Erwin, first author on the study, further elaborated:

“The surprising part was that we thought all L1s could do was insert into new places. But the fact that they’re causing deletions means that they’re affecting the genome in a more significant way,” says Erwin, a staff scientist in Gage’s group.”

Insights into brain disorders

It’s now known that L1s are important for the brain’s genetic diversity, but Gage also believes that L1s could play a role in causing brain disorders like schizophrenia and autism where there is heightened L1 activity in the neurons of these patients. In future work, Gage and his team will study how L1s can cause changes in genes associated with schizophrenia and autism and how these changes can effect brain function and cause disease.