Stem Cell Roundup: The brain & obesity; iPSCs & sex chromosomes; modeling mental illness

Stem Cell Image of the Week:
Obesity-in-a-dish reveals mutations and abnormal function in nerve cells

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Image shows two types of hypothalamic neurons (in magenta and cyan) that were derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells.
Credit: Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute

Our stem cell image of the week looks like the work of a pre-historic cave dweller who got their hands on some DayGlo paint. But, in fact, it’s a fluorescence microscopy image of stem cell-derived brain cells from the lab of Dhruv Sareen, PhD, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Sareen’s team is investigating the role of the brain in obesity. Since the brain is a not readily accessible organ, the team reprogrammed skin and blood cell samples from severely obese and normal weight individuals into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These iPSCs were then matured into nerve cells found in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates hunger and other functions.

A comparative analysis showed that the nerve cells derived from the obese individuals had several genetic mutations and had an abnormal response to hormones that play a role in telling our brains that we are hungry or full. The Cedars-Sinai team is excited to use this obesity-in-a-dish system to further explore the underlying cellular changes that lead to excessive weight gain. Ultimately, these studies may reveal ways to combat the ever-growing obesity epidemic, as Dr. Sareen states in a press release:

“We are paving the way for personalized medicine, in which drugs could be customized for obese patients with different genetic backgrounds and disease statuses.”

The study was published in Cell Stem Cell

Differences found in stem cells derived from male vs female.

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Microscope picture of a colony of iPS cells. Credit: Vincent Pasque

Scientists at UCLA and KU Leuven University in Belgium carried out a study to better understand the molecular mechanisms that control the process of reprogramming adult cells back into the embryonic stem cell-like state of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Previous studies have shown that female vs male embryonic stem cells have different patterns of gene regulation. So, in the current study, male and female cells were analyzed side-by-side during the reprogramming process.  First author Victor Pasquale explained in a press release that the underlying differences stemmed from the sex chromosomes:

In a normal situation, one of the two X chromosomes in female cells is inactive. But when these cells are reprogrammed into iPS cells, the inactive X becomes active. So, the female iPS cells now have two active X chromosomes, while males have only one. Our results show that studying male and female cells separately is key to a better understanding of how iPS cells are made. And we really need to understand the process if we want to create better disease models and to help the millions of patients waiting for more effective treatments.”

The CIRM-funded study was published in Stem Cell Reports.

Using mini-brains and CRISPR to study genetic linkage of schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder.

If you haven’t already picked up on a common thread in this week’s stories, this last entry should make it apparent: iPSC cells are the go-to method to gain insight in the underlying mechanisms of a wide range of biology topics. In this case, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School were interested in understanding how mutations in a gene called DISC1 were linked to several mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression. While much has been gleaned from animal models, there’s limited knowledge of how DISC1 affects the development of the human brain.

The team used human iPSCs to grow cerebral organoids, also called mini-brains, which are three-dimensional balls of cells that mimic particular parts of the brain’s anatomy. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology – another very popular research tool – the team introduced DISC1 mutations found in families suffering from these mental disorders.

Compared to cells with normal copies of the DISC1 gene, the mutant organoids showed abnormal structure and excessive cell signaling. When an inhibitor of that cell signaling was added to the growing mutant organoids, the irregular structures did not develop.

These studies using human cells provide an important system for gaining a better understanding of, and potentially treating, mental illnesses that victimize generations of families.

The study was published in Translation Psychiatry and picked up by Eureka Alert.

Cold temps nudge stem cells to boost “good” fat, may point to obesity remedies

Newborn babies may not be able to walk or talk but they can do something that makes adults very jealous: burn extra calories without exercising. This feat is accomplished with the help of brown fat which is abundant in infants (and hibernating animals) but barely detectable in adults. However, a new study in Scientific Reports shows that cold temperatures can nudge mesenchymal stem cells – found in the bone marrow – toward a brown fat cell fate, a finding that may uncover new strategies for combating obesity and other metabolic diseases.

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Side by side comparision of brown fat, or adipose, cells and white fat cells.
Image: AHAJournals.org

So, what’s so magical about cells that carry brown fat, the so-called “good” fat? Like the more common “bad’ white fat cells, brown fat cells store energy in the form of fat droplets and can burn that energy to meet the demands of the body’s functions like pumping the heart and moving the limbs. But brown fat can also burn calories independent of the body’s energy needs. It’s like stepping on a car’s clutch and gas pedal at the same time: the body burns the fuel but doesn’t do any usable work, so those calories just dissipate as heat. This source of heat is critical for babies because they are not yet able to regulate their own body temperature and lose heat rapidly.

Scientists have known for quite some time that cold temperatures stimulate the production of brown fat but didn’t know exactly why (a CIRM-funded study we blogged about last week identified a protein that also boosts brown fat production). In the current study, a team at the University of Nottingham in the U.K., examined the effect of cold temperature on the fate of bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells which give rise to both white and brown fat tissue as well as bone, cartilage and muscle. Petri dishes containing the cells were placed in incubators at 89°F (32°C) and stimulated to become fat cells. That may not seem cold, but if your core body temperature went that low (instead of the normal 98.6F) you would be beyond shivering, close to collapsing and in need of an emergency room.

With that temperature drop, the researcher observed a “browning” of the stem cells towards a brown fat cell fate. The brown color, in case you’re interested, is cause by the increased number of mitochondria within the cells. These “power factories” of the cell are the source of the heat generation. This result has promising implications for adults struggling with their body weight.

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Virginie Sottile

“The good news from these results is that our cells are not pre-programmed to form bad fat and our stem cells can respond if we apply the right change in lifestyle,” explained Dr Virginie Sottile, one of the team leaders on the project, in a press release.

 

Ok, I know what you’re thinking: moving to Antarctica to lose weight is not my idea of a doable lifestyle change! That’s a point well taken. But the ultimate goal for the researchers is to use this cell system to more carefully study the cellular events that occur under reduced temperatures. This type of inquiry could help identify drug targets that mimic the effects of colder temperatures:

“The next step in our research is to find the actual switch in the cell that makes it respond to the change of temperature in its environment,” said Dr Sottile. “That way, we may be able to identify drugs or molecules that people could swallow that may artificially activate the same gene and trick the body into producing more of this good fat.”

Stem Cell Round: Improving memory, building up “good” fat, nanomedicine

Stem Cell Photo of the Week

roundup03618In honor of brain awareness week, our featured stem cell photo is of the brain! Scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Stem Cell Institute identified a genetic switch that could potentially improve memory during aging and symptoms of PTSD. Shown in this picture are dentate gyrus cells (DGC) (green) and CA3 interneurons (red) located in the memory-forming area of the brain known as the hippocampus. By reducing the levels of a protein called abLIM3 in the DGCs of older mice, the researchers were able to boost the connections between DGCs and CA3 cells, which resulted in an improvement in the memories of the mice. The team believes that targeting this protein in aging adults could be a potential strategy for improving memory and treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can read more about this study in The Harvard Gazette.

New target for obesity.
Fat cells typically get a bad rap, but there’s actually a type of fat cell that is considered “healthier” than others. Unlike white fat cells that store calories in the form of energy, brown fat cells are packed with mitochondria that burn energy and produce heat. Babies have brown fat, so they can regulate their body temperature to stay warm. Adults also have some brown fat, but as we get older, our stores are slowly depleted.

In the fight against obesity, scientists are looking for ways to increase the amount of brown fat and decrease the amount of white fat in the body. This week, CIRM-funded researchers from the Salk Institute identified a molecule called ERRg that gives brown fat its ability to burn energy. Their findings, published in Cell Reports, offer a new target for obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and fatty liver disease.

The team discovered that brown fat cells produce the ERRg molecule while white fat cells do not. Additionally, mice that couldn’t make the ERRg weren’t able to regulate their body temperature in cold environments. The team concluded in a news release that ERRg is “involved in protection against the cold and underpins brown fat identity.” In future studies, the researchers plan to activate ERRg in white fat cells to see if this will shift their identity to be more similar to brown fat cells.

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Mice that lack ERR aren’t able to regulate their body temperature and are much colder (right) than normal mice (left). (Image credit Salk Institute)

Tale of two nanomedicine stories: making gene therapies more efficient with a bit of caution (Todd Dubnicoff).
This week, the worlds of gene therapy, stem cells and nanomedicine converged for not one, but two published reports in the journal American Chemistry Society NANO.

The first paper described the development of so-called nanospears – tiny splinter-like magnetized structures with a diameter 5000 times smaller than a strand of human hair – that could make gene therapy more efficient and less costly. Gene therapy is an exciting treatment strategy because it tackles genetic diseases at their source by repairing or replacing faulty DNA sequences in cells. In fact, several CIRM-funded clinical trials apply this method in stem cells to treat immune disorders, like severe combined immunodeficiency and sickle cell anemia.

This technique requires getting DNA into diseased cells to make the genetic fix. Current methods have low efficiency and can be very damaging to the cells. The UCLA research team behind the study tested the nanospear-delivery of DNA encoding a gene that causes cells to glow green. They showed that 80 percent of treated cells did indeed glow green, a much higher efficiency than standard methods. And probably due to their miniscule size, the nanospears were gentle with 90 percent of the green glowing cells surviving the procedure.

As Steve Jonas, one of the team leads on the project mentions in a press release, this new method could bode well for future recipients of gene therapies:

“The biggest barrier right now to getting either a gene therapy or an immunotherapy to patients is the processing time. New methods to generate these therapies more quickly, effectively and safely are going to accelerate innovation in this research area and bring these therapies to patients sooner, and that’s the goal we all have.”

While the study above describes an innovative nanomedicine technology, the next paper inserts a note of caution about how experiments in this field should be set up and analyzed. A collaborative team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Stanford University, UC Berkeley and McGill University wanted to get to the bottom of why the many advances in nanomedicine had not ultimately led to many new clinical trials. They set out looking for elements within experiments that could affect the uptake of nanoparticles into cells, something that would muck up the interpretation of results.

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imaging of female human amniotic stem cells incubated with nanoparticles demonstrated a significant increase in uptake compared to male cells. (Green dots: nanoparticles; red: cell staining; blue: nuclei) Credit: Morteza Mahmoudi, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

In this study, they report that the sex of cells has a surprising, noticeable impact on nanoparticle uptake. Nanoparticles were incubated with human amniotic stem cells derived from either males or females. The team showed that the female cells took up the nanoparticles much more readily than the male cells.  Morteza Mahmoudi, PhD, one of the authors on the paper, explained the implications of these results in a press release:

“These differences could have a critical impact on the administration of nanoparticles. If nanoparticles are carrying a drug to deliver [including gene therapies], different uptake could mean different therapeutic efficacy and other important differences, such as safety, in clinical data.”

 

Stories that caught our eye last week: dying cells trigger stem cells, CRISPR videogames and an obesity-stem cell link

A dying cell’s last breath triggers stem cell division. Most cells in your body are in a constant state of turnover. The cells of your lungs, for instance, replace themselves every 2 to 3 weeks and, believe it or not, you get a new intestine every 2 to 3 days. We can thank adult stem cells residing in these organs for producing the new replacement cells. But with this continual flux, how do the stem cells manage to generate just the right number of cells to maintain the same organ size? Just a slight imbalance would lead to either too few cells or too many which can lead to organ dysfunction and disease.

The intestine turnovers every five days. Stem cells (green) in the fruit fly intestine maintain organ size and structure. Image: Lucy Erin O’Brien/Stanford U.

Stanford University researchers published results on Friday in Nature that make inroads into explaining this fascinating, fundamental question about stem cell and developmental biology. Studying the cell turnover process of the intestine in fruit flies, the scientists discovered that, as if speaking its final words, a dying intestinal cell, or enterocyte, directly communicates with an intestinal stem cell to trigger it to divide and provide young, healthy enterocytes.

To reach this conclusion, the team first analyzed young enterocytes and showed that a protein these cells produce, called E-cadherin, blocks the release of a growth factor called EGF, a known stimulator of cell division. When young enterocytes became old and begin a process called programmed cell death, or apoptosis, the E-cadherin levels drop which removes the inhibition of EGF. As a result, a nearby stem cell now receives the EGF’s cell division signal, triggering it to divide and replace the dying cell. In her summary of this research in Stanford’s Scope blog, science writer Krista Conger explains how the dying cell’s signal to a stem cell ensures that there no net gain or loss of intestinal cells:

“The signal emitted by the dying cell travels only a short distance to activate only nearby stem cells. This prevents an across-the-board response by multiple stem cells that could result in an unwanted increase in the number of newly generated replacement cells.”

Because E-cadherin and the EGF receptor (EGFR) are each associated with certain cancers, senior author Lucy Erin O’Brien ponders the idea that her lab’s new findings may explain an underlying mechanism of tumor growth:

Lucy Erin O’Brien Image: Stanford U.

“Intriguingly, E-cadherin and EGFR are each individually implicated in particular cancers. Could they actually be cooperating to promote tumor development through some dysfunctional version of the normal renewal mechanism that we’ve uncovered?”

 

How a videogame could make gene editing safer (Kevin McCormack). The gene editing tool CRISPR has been getting a lot of attention this past year, and for good reason, it has the potential to eliminate genetic mutations that are responsible for some deadly diseases. But there are still many questions about the safety of CRISPR, such as how to control where it edits the genome and ensure it doesn’t cause unexpected problems.

Now a team at Stanford University is hoping to use a videogame to find answers to some of those questions. Here’s a video about their project:

The team is using the online game Eterna – which describes itself as “Empowering citizen scientists to invent medicine”. In the game, “players” can build RNA molecules that can then be used to turn on or off specific genes associated with specific diseases.

The Stanford team want “players” to design an RNA molecule that can be used as an On/Off switch for CRISPR. This would enable scientists to turn CRISPR on when they want it, but off when it is not needed.

In an article on the Stanford News website, team leader Howard Chang said this is a way to engage the wider scientific community in coming up with a solution:

Howard Chang
Photo: Stanford U.

“Great ideas can come from anywhere, so this is also an experiment in the democratization of science. A lot of people have hidden talents that they don’t even know about. This could be their calling. Maybe there’s somebody out there who is a security guard and a fantastic RNA biochemist, and they don’t even know it. The Eterna game is a powerful way to engage lots and lots of people. They’re not just passive users of information but actually involved in the process.”

They hope up to 100,000 people will play the game and help find a solution.

Altered stem cell gene activity partly to blame for obesity. People who are obese are often ridiculed for their weight problems because their condition is chalked up to a lack of discipline or self-control. But there are underlying biological processes that play a key role in controlling body weight which are independent of someone’s personality. It’s known that so-called satiety hormones – which are responsible for giving us the sensation that we’re full from a meal – are reduced in obese individuals compared to those with a normal weight.

Stem cells may have helped Al Roker’s dramatic weight loss after bariatric surgery. Photo: alroker.com

Bariatric surgery, which reduces the size of the stomach, is a popular treatment option for obesity and can lead to remarkable weight loss. Al Roker, the weatherman for NBC’s Today Show is one example that comes to mind of a weight loss success story after having this procedure. It turns out that the weight loss is not just due to having a smaller stomach and in turn smaller meals, but researchers have shown that the surgery also restores the levels of satiety hormones. So post-surgery, those individuals get a more normal, “I’m full”, feedback from their brains after eating a meal.

A team of Swiss doctors wanted to understand why the satiety hormone levels return to normal after bariatric surgery and this week they reported their answer in Scientific Reports. They analyzed enteroendocrine cells – the cells that release satiety hormones into the bloodstream and to the brain in response to food that enters the stomach and intestines – in obese individuals before and after bariatric surgery as well as a group of people with normal weight. The results showed that obese individuals have fewer enteroendocrine cells compared with the normal weight group. Post-surgery, those cells return to normal levels.

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Cells which can release satiety hormones are marked in green. For obese patients (middle), the number of these cells is markedly lower than for lean people (top) and for overweight patients three months after surgery (bottom). Image: University of Basil.

A deeper examination of the cells from the obese study group revealed altered patterns of gene activity in stem cells that are responsible for generating the enteroendocrine cells. In the post-surgery group, the patterns of gene activity, as seen in the normal weight group, are re-established. As mentioned in a University of Basil press release, these results stress that obesity is more than just a problem of diet and life-style choices:

“There is no doubt that metabolic factors are playing an important part. The study shows that there are structural differences between lean and obese people, which can explain lack of satiation in the obese.”

 

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

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

Skin grafts fight diabetes and obesity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to reprogram your immune system (Kevin McCormack)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial expands clinical sites

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

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

Ed Wirth

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

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

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

Stories that caught our eye: smelling weight gain, colon cancer & diet and diabetes & broken bones

How smelling your food could cause weight gain (Karen Ring).
Here’s the headline that caught my eye this week: “Smelling your food first can make you fat…”

It’s a bizarre statement, but the claim is backed by scientific research coming from a new study in Cell Metabolism by researchers at the University of California Berkeley. The team found that obese mice who smelled their food before eating it were more likely to gain weight compared to obese mice that couldn’t smell their food.

Their experiments revealed a connection between the olfactory system, which is responsible for our sense of smell, and how the mice metabolize food into energy. Obese mice that lost their ability to smell actually lost weight on a high-fat diet, burned more fat, and became more sensitive to the hormone insulin. Insulin regulates how much glucose, or sugar, is in the blood by facilitating the absorption of glucose by fat, liver and muscle cells. In obese individuals, insulin resistance can occur where their cells are no longer sensitive to the hormone and therefore can’t regulate how much glucose is in the blood.

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Both mice in this picture were fed the same high-fat diet. The only difference: the lower mouse’s sense of smell was temporarily blocked. Image: UC Berkeley

For obese mice that could smell their food, the same high fat diet given to the “no-smellers” resulted in massive weight gain in the “smellers” because their metabolism was impaired. Even more interesting is the fact that other types of smells unrelated to food, such as the scent of other mice, influenced weight gain in the “smellers”.

The authors concluded that the centers in our brain that are responsible for smell (the olfactory system) and metabolism (the hypothalamus) are connected and that manipulating smell could be a future strategy to influence how the brain controls the balance of energy during food consumption.

In an interview with Tech Times, senior author on the study, Dr. Andrew Dillin, explained how their research could potentially lead to a new strategy to promote weight loss,

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Andrew Dillin. Image: HHMI

“Sensory systems play a role in metabolism. Weight gain isn’t purely a measure of the calories taken in; it’s also related to how those calories are perceived. If we can validate this in humans, perhaps we can actually make a drug that doesn’t interfere with smell but still blocks that metabolic circuitry. That would be amazing.”

A link between colorectal cancer and a Western diet identified
Weight gain isn’t the only concern of a eating a high-fat diet. It’s thought that 80% of colorectal cases are associated with a high-fat, Western diet. The basis for this connection hasn’t been well understood. But this week, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic report in Stem Cell Reports that they’ve pinpointed a protein signaling network within cancer stem cells as a possible source of the link.

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Cancer stem cells have properties that resemble embryonic stem cells and are thought to be the source of a cancer’s unlimited growth and spread. A cancer stem cell maintains its properties by exploiting various cell signaling processes that when functioning abnormally can lead to inappropriate cell division and tumor growth. In this study, the team focused on one cell signaling process carried out by a protein called STAT3, known to promote tumor growth in a mouse model of colon cancer. When the team blocked STAT3 activity, high fat diet-induced cancer stem cell growth subsided.

In a press release, Dr. Matthew Kalady, a colorectal surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and an author on this study, explained how this new insight can open new therapeutic avenues:

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Matthew Kalady. Image: Cleveland Clinic

“We have known the influence of diet on colorectal cancer. However, these new findings are the first to show the connection between high-fat intake and colon cancer via a specific molecular pathway. We can now build upon this knowledge to develop new treatments aimed at blocking this pathway and reducing the negative impact of a high-fat diet on colon cancer risk.”

 

 

Scientists connect dots between diabetes and broken bones.
Type 2 diabetes carries a whole host of long-term complications including heart disease, nerve damage, kidney dysfunction and even an increased risk for bone fractures. The connection between diabetes and fragile bones has not been well understood. But this week, researchers at New York University of Dentistry, Stanford University and China’s Dalian Medical University published a report, funded in part by CIRM, in this week’s Nature Communications showing a biochemical basis for this connection. The new insight may lead to treatment options to prevent fractures.

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Chemical structure of succinate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Fundamentally, diabetes is a disease that causes hyperglycemia, or abnormally high levels of blood sugar. The team ran a systematic analysis of hyperglycemia’s effects on bone metabolism using bone marrow samples from diabetic and healthy mice. They found that the levels of succinate, a key molecule involved in energy production, are over 20 times higher in the diabetic mice. In turns out that succinate also acts as a stimulator of bone breakdown. Now, bone is continually in a process of turnover and, in a healthy state, the breakdown of old bone is balanced with the formation of new bone. So, it appears that the huge increase of succinate is tipping the balance of bone turnover. In fact, the team found that the porous, yet strong inner region of bone, called trabecular bone, was significantly reduced in the diabetic mice, making them more susceptible to fractures.

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The density of spongy bone, or trabecular bone, is reduced in type 2 diabetes.
Image: Wikimedia commons

Dr. Xin Li, the study’s lead scientist, explained the importance of these new insights for people living with type 2 diabetes in a press release:

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Xin Li.
Image: NYU Dentistry

“The results are important because diabetics have a significantly higher fracture risk and their healing process is always delayed. In our study, the hyperglycemic mice had increased bone resorption [the breakdown and absorption of old bone], which outpaced the formation of new bone. This has implications for bone protection, as well as for the treatment of diabetes-associated collateral bone damage.”

 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: How Zika may impact adult brains; Move over CRISPR there’s a new kid in town; How our bodies store fat

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.

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Zika mosquito

Zika virus could impact adult brains

It’s not just a baby’s developing brain that is vulnerable to the Zika virus, adult brains may be too. A new study shows that some stem cells that help repair damage in the adult brain can be impacted by Zika. This is the first time we’ve had any indication this could be a problem in a fully developed brain.

The study, in the journal Cell Stem Cell, looked at neural progenitors, a  stem cell that plays an important role in helping replace or repair damaged neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain. The researchers exposed the cells to the Zika virus and found that it infected the cells, causing some of the cells to die, and also limited the ability of the cells to proliferate.

In an interview in Healthday, Sujan Shresta, a researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and one of the lead authors of the study, says although their work was done in adult mice, it may have implications for people:

“Zika can clearly enter the brains of adults and can wreak havoc. But it’s a complex disease, it’s catastrophic for early brain development, yet the majority of adults who are infected with Zika rarely show detectable symptoms. Its effect on the adult brain may be more subtle and now we know what to look for.”

Move over CRISPR, there’s a new gene-editing tool in town

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Jennifer Lopez: Photo courtesy MTV

For much of the last year the hottest topic in stem cell and gene editing research has been CRISPR and the ease with which it can be used to edit genes. It’s so hot that apparently it’s the title of an upcoming TV show starring Jeniffer Lopez.

But hold on J-Lo, a new study in Nature Communications says by the time the show is on the air it may be old hat. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Yale University have developed a new gene-editing system, one they claim is easier to use and more accurate than CRISPR. And to prove it, they say they have successfully cured a genetic blood disorder in mice, using a simple IV approach.

Tools like CRISPR use enzymes to cut open sections of DNA to edit a specific gene. It’s like using a pair of scissors to cut a piece of string that has a big knot in the middle; you cut out the knot then join the ends of the string together. The problem with CRISPR is that the enzymes it uses are quite large and hard to use in a living animal – let alone a human – so they have to remove the target cells from the body and do the editing in the lab. Another problem is that CRISPR sometimes cuts sections of DNA that the researchers don’t want cut and could lead to dangerous side effects.

Greater precision

The Carnegie Mellon/Yale team say their new method avoids both problems. They use nanoparticles that contain molecules made from peptide nucleic acid (PNA), a kind of artificial form of DNA. This PNA is engineered to be able to cut open DNA and bind to a specific target without cutting anything else.

The team used this approach to target the mutated gene in beta thalassemia, a blood disorder that can be fatal if left untreated. The therapy binds to the malfunctioning gene, enabling the body’s own DNA repair system to correct the problem.

In a news story in Science Daily Danith Ly, one of the lead authors on the study, says even though the technique was successful in editing the target genes just 7 percent of the time, that is way more than the 0.1 percent rate most other gene editing tools achieve.

“The effect may only be 7 percent, but that’s curative. In the case of this particular disease model, you don’t need a lot of correction. You don’t need 100 percent to see the phenotype return to normal.”

Hormone that controls if and when fat cells mature

Obesity is one of the fastest growing public health problems in the US and globally. Understanding the mechanisms behind how that happens could be key to finding ways to address it. Now researchers at Stanford University think they may have uncovered an important part of the answer.

Their findings, reported in Science Signaling, show that mature fat cells produce a hormone called Adamts1 which acts like a switch for surrounding stem cells, determining if they change into fat-storing cells.   People who eat a high-fat diet experience a change in their Adamst1 production, and that triggers the nearby stem cells to specialize and start storing fat.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about Adamst1, including whether it acts alone or in conjunction with other as yet unknown hormones. But in an article in Health Canal, Brian Feldman, the senior author of the study, says they can now start looking at potential use of Adamst1 to fight obesity.

“That won’t be a simple answer. If you block fat formation, extra calories have to go somewhere in the body, and sending them somewhere else outside fat cells could be more detrimental to metabolism. We know from other researchers’ work that liver and muscle are both bad places to store fat, for example. We do think there are going to be opportunities for new treatments based on our discoveries, but not by simply blocking fat formation alone.”

 

Faulty fat stem cells & obesity-related diabetes

You see it in the news all the time: more and more people around the world are obese and as a result they’re at a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In fact, 90% of individuals with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese.

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Fat cells (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

“Healthy” obese individuals protected from diabetes and other complications
A fascinating observation is that despite this tight association between weight and diabetes, some obese people are somehow shielded from the increased risks for diabetes and other associated diseases. Considering these conditions are among the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S., understanding how exactly these “healthy” obese individuals are protected could benefit millions of people.

A new study by researchers at the University of Bristol and Anti-Doping Laboratory Qatar (ADLQ) suggests that fat stem cells may hold the key to unlocking this mystery. Reporting in Diabetologia, the team found that fat stem cells from “healthy” obese people were better at storing fat compared to these same cells in people with increased risk for diabetes.

Belly fat and the development of diabetes
To delve deeper into the study, let’s take a closer look at the cellular biology of obesity and diabetes. The accumulation of fat in obese individuals initially leads to bigger fat cells but eventually causes the recruitment of fat stem cells. These additional fat cells can deposit as so-called visceral fat (aka belly fat) which accumulates within larger organs like the liver, heart and muscle instead of under the skin. Now, when a carbohydrate meal is eaten, the food is broken down into simple sugars which enter the blood. This rise in blood sugar is temporary because our organs like the liver and muscle use the sugar for energy. The blood sugar enters muscle and liver cells with the help of the hormone, insulin. But visceral fat mucks up these organs’ ability to sense insulin – they’re called insulin resistant – and blood sugar levels stay elevated which is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes (in type 1 diabetes the body doesn’t make any insulin).

In the study, the research team collected blood samples and isolated fat stem cells from 57 severely obese individuals undergoing liposuction.  Some of the volunteers were insulin resistant (their organs had a hard time taking up blood sugar despite the presence of insulin) and had obesity-related conditions like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. The others were insulin sensitive (their organs could take in blood sugar) and had no signs of obesity-related conditions.

Obesity-related complications and faulty fat stem cells
It turned out that the fat stem cells from obese individuals with insulin resistance (increased risk of complications) did not store fat as well as the fat stem cells from the “healthy” obese subjects. It’s this inefficient fat storage that likely leads to the build-up of visceral fat.

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So why the difference? A comparison of various proteins in the blood of the two groups, showed that IL-6 – a protein secreted by the white blood cells of our immune system – was higher in the insulin resistant subjects. Back in the lab, the team found that the elevated IL-6 played a role in the cells’ reduced ability to store fat. Mohamed Elrayess, one of the authors from ADLQ, summarized the results in a press release:

“In this study we have shown that the impaired ability of fat stem cells to store excess fat was partially due to increased levels of the inflammatory marker interleukin-6 in the blood. Indeed, when fat stem cells isolated from healthy obese individuals were exposed to interleukin-6 in the laboratory, they behaved like those obtained from individuals with risk of diabetes.”

With this new piece of the obesity puzzle, the researchers are now focused on how they can make the fat stem cells from at risk individuals better at storing fat as a means to prevent the onset of diabetes.

Beige isn’t bland when it comes to solving the obesity epidemic

Americans spend over $60 billion a year to lose weight and yet two-thirds (that’s more than 200 million) are considered overweight or obese. Losing weight should be easy: just eat less and exercise more, right? But our body’s metabolism is a very complex thing and appears to fight against our best efforts to shed pounds. A recent analysis of clinical trial data and mathematical modeling suggests that over the long haul, none of the various diet strategies lead to meaningful weight loss. Even the contribution of exercise to weight loss has been called into question.

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Lose weight by simply eating less calories than you burn. Easier said than done! (Image credit)

All is not lost. In fact, the fat we carry in our bodies may hold the key to overcoming our obesity woes. A recent CIRM-funded UC Francisco study published in Cell Metabolism finds that harnessing a calorie burning form of fat cells may help guard against the development of obesity.

The Many Hues of Fat
Humans, like other mammals, have two very different types of fat tissue. The more abundant white fat acts to store fat and provides a form of energy to help our body function. An excess of white fat tissue is associated with metabolic diseases including diabetes and obesity. Brown fat tissue, on the other hand, generates heat and is associated with slimness. It was thought that only babies have brown fat which protects them against cold temperatures – they lack the muscle strength for the shivering response – but research in 2009 identified this fat tissue in adults as well.

The UCSF team, led by professor Shingo Kajimura, showed last year that adults actually have so-called beige fat cells that are able to switch from white to brown fat in the presence of colder temperatures and vice versa. This discovery presents the tantalizing potential of promoting weight loss in people by pushing white fat cells toward energy burning brown fat. In that earlier work, the team identified a protein that when inhibited with drugs caused the white fat cells to burn energy like the beige and brown fat. But this effect was short lived and these cells reverted back to the typical features of white fat cells. Kajimura reflected on these previous studies in a university press release:

“Our focus has been on learning to convert white fat into beige fat. Now we’re realizing we also have to think about how to keep it there for longer time.”

In the new study, the team focused on the fact that as beige cells revert back to white cells, their mitochondria – a cell’s energy producing factories – begin to disappear. First author Svetlana Altshuler-Keylin wanted to understand why:

“We knew that the color of brown and beige fat comes from the amount of pigmented mitochondria they contain, so we wondered whether something was going on with the mitochondria when beige fat turns white.”

Stopping cells from eating up too much mitochondria
Examining gene activity as cells went from beige to white implicated a process called autophagy was at play. This house cleaning function of a cell involves the breakdown of its own internal structures that are not functioning properly or aren’t needed. So perhaps stopping the autophagy process from occurring would prevent the energy burning beige cells from eating up their own mitochondria and reverting them back to the energy hoarding white cells.

To test this idea, the team relied on mice lacking genes that play important roles in autophagy. They beefed up their beige fat by subjecting the mice to cold temperatures. But when returned to a normal environment, the mice kept their beige fat and it didn’t convert back to white cells. This change impacted the mice overall health: when place on a fatty diet for two months these mice with the defective autophagy gained less weight. These mice were also able to better regulate blood sugar levels, an indication they there were protected from type 2 diabetes symptoms.

While these results represent very early stage research, Kajimura and his team now have a solid path to travel toward trying to help obese individual burn more calories, especially as they age:

“With age you tend to naturally lose your beige fat, which we think is one of the main drivers of age-related obesity. Your calorie intake stays the same, but you’re not burning as much. Maybe by understanding this process we can help people keep more beige fat, and therefore stay healthier.”

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: Parkinson’s trial revived, aspirin kills cancer stem cells and a stem cell role in mother-child obesity

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.

Parkinson’s clinical trials back on track.
After nearly 20 years of being stuck on the clinical trial “bookshelf”, an international team from Cambridge, UK revived a cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

In an announcement picked up this week by the Genetic Literacy Project, the team reported they had treated their first patient. Specifically, fetal brain cells were injected into the brain of a man in his mid-50’s with the disease.

Neurons derived from human embryonic stem cells

A fluorescent microscopic image of numerous dopaminergic neurons (the type of neurons that are degenerated in Parkinson’s disease patients) generated from human embryonic stem cells. Image courtesy of the Xianmin Zeng lab at the Buck Institute for Age Research.

In Parkinson’s, nerve cells controlling movement die for poorly understood reasons. An accumulation of data through the 60’s and 70’s suggested transplantation of fetal brain cells into the Parkinson’s brain would replace the lost nerve cells and restore movement control. After initial promising results in the 80’s and 90’s, larger clinical trials showed no significant benefit and even led to a worsening of symptoms in some patients.

Due to these outcomes, the research community shelved the approach. Insights gained in the interim pointed to more ideal brain injection sites in order to help avoid side effects. Also, follow up on patients beyond the two-year run of those early trials suggested that positive effects of the cell therapy may not emerge for at least three to five years. So this latest trial will run longer to capture this time window.

One remaining snag for this therapeutic strategy is the limited number of available cells for each transplant. So in the meantime, scientists including some of our grantees are working hard at getting embryonic stem cell- or iPS cell-based therapies to the clinic. Since stem cells divide indefinitely, this approach could provide an off-the-shelf, limitless supply of the nerve cells. Stay tuned.

Targeting cancer stem cells with the Wonder Drug.
Aspirin: it’s the wonder drug that may turn out to be even more wonderful.

Ball and stick model of aspirin, the wonder drug: relieves pain and prevents cancer

Ball and stick model of aspirin, the wonder drug: relieves pain and prevents cancer

Famous for relieving pain and preventing heart attacks, aspirin may add breast cancer-killer to its resume. This week a cancer research team at the Kansas City (Mo.) Veteran Affairs Medical Center published experiments picked up by Eureka Alert showing a daily dose of aspirin could put the brakes on breast cancer.

The analysis attributed this anti-cancer effect to aspirin’s capacity to reduce the growth of cancer stem cells. These cells make up a tiny portion of a tumor but if chemotherapy or radiation treatment leaves any behind, it’s thought the cells’ stem cell-like ability for unlimited growth drives cancer relapse and spread (metastasis).

In the study, mice with tumors given a daily low dose of aspirin for 15 days had, on average, tumors nearly 50% smaller than the aspirin-free mice. In another set of experiments, the team showed aspirin could prevent tumors as well. Mice were given aspirin for 10 days before exposing them to cancer cells. After another 15 days, the aspirin treated animals had significantly less tumor growth compared to an untreated group.

Senior author Sushanta Banerjee stands behind these findings: he’s been taking an aspirin a day for three years but stresses that you should consult with your doctor before trying it yourself.

A stem cell link to the passing on of obesity from mom to child?
It’s been observed that children of obese moms have a high risk for obesity and diabetes. You might conclude that genetics are the culprit as well as lifestyle habits passed down from parent to child. But research published this week by researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine suggests another mechanism: they conclude the mere presence of the growing embryo in the uterus of an obese mother may instruct the child’s cells to take on more fat.

The team’s reasoning is based on an analysis of umbilical cord blood stem cells collected from babies born to 12 obese mothers and 12 normal weight mothers. In the lab, the stem cells were specialized into fat and muscle cells. The cells from babies of obese mothers showed increased fat accumulation and a lower production of proteins important for uptake of blood sugar (a state that could eventually tip the scales towards diabetes).

Certainly it’s a leap to link the property of cells in a dish to the eventual health of a child. But the results are intriguing enough that the researchers intend to follow the children as they get older to look for more connections between the state of the kids’ stem cells and their health profile.