Funding stem cell research targeting a rare and life-threatening disease in children

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Photo courtesy Cystinosis Research Network

If you have never heard of cystinosis you should consider yourself fortunate. It’s a rare condition caused by an inherited genetic mutation. It hits early and it hits hard. Children with cystinosis are usually diagnosed before age 2 and are in end-stage kidney failure by the time they are 9. If that’s not bad enough they also experience damage to their eyes, liver, muscles, pancreas and brain.

The genetic mutation behind the condition results in an amino acid, cystine, accumulating at toxic levels in the body. There’s no cure. There is one approved treatment but it only delays progression of the disease, has some serious side effects of its own, and doesn’t prevent the need for a  kidney transplant.

Researchers at UC San Diego, led by Stephanie Cherqui, think they might have a better approach, one that could offer a single, life-long treatment for the problem. Yesterday the CIRM Board agreed and approved more than $5.2 million for Cherqui and her team to do the pre-clinical testing and work needed to get this potential treatment ready for a clinical trial.

Their goal is to take blood stem cells from people with cystinosis, genetically-modify them and return them to the patient, effectively delivering a healthy, functional gene to the body. The hope is that these genetically-modified blood stem cells will integrate with various body organs and not only replace diseased cells but also rescue them from the disease, making them healthy once again.

In a news release Randy Mills, CIRM’s President and CEO, said orphan diseases like cystinosis may not affect large numbers of people but are no less deserving of research in finding an effective therapy:

“Current treatments are expensive and limited. We want to push beyond and help find a life-long treatment, one that could prevent kidney failure and the need for kidney transplant. In this case, both the need and the science were compelling.”

The beauty of work like this is that, if successful, a one-time treatment could last a lifetime, eliminating or reducing kidney disease and the need for kidney transplantation. But it doesn’t stop there. The lessons learned through research like this might also apply to other inherited multi-organ degenerative disorders.

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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.

Making a deposit in the Bank: using stem cells from children with rare diseases to find new treatments

Part of The Stem Cellar series on ten years of iPS cells

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For Chris Waters, the motivation behind her move from big pharmaceutical companies and biotech to starting a non-profit organization focused on rare diseases in children is simple: “What’s most important is empowering patient families and helping them accelerate research to the clinical solutions they so urgently need for their child ,” she says.

Chris is the founder of Rare Science. Their mission statement – Accelerating Cures for RARE Kids – bears a striking resemblance to ours here at CIRM, so creating a partnership between us just seemed to make sense. At least it did to Chris. And one thing you need to know about Chris, is that when she has an idea you should just get out of the way, because she is going to make it happen.

“The biggest gap in drug development is that we are not addressing the specific needs of children, especially those with rare diseases.  We need to focus on kids. They are our future. If it takes 14 years and $2 billion to get FDA approval for a new drug, how is that going to help the 35% of the 200 million children across the world that are dying before 5 years of age because they have a rare disease? That’s why we created Rare Science. How do we help kids right now, how do we help the families? How do we make change?”

Banking on CIRM for help

One of the changes she wanted to make was to add the blood and tissue samples from one of the rare disease patient communities she works with to the CIRM Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Bank. This program is collecting samples from up to 3,000 Californians – some of them healthy, some suffering from diseases such as autism, Alzheimer’s, heart, lung and liver disease and blindness. The samples will be turned into iPS cells – pluripotent stem cells that have the ability to be turned into any other type of cell in the body – enabling researchers to study how the diseases progress, and hopefully leading to the development of new therapies.

 

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Lilly Grossman: photo courtesy LA Times

Chris says many kids with rare diseases can struggle for years to get an accurate diagnosis and even when they do get one there is often nothing available to help them. She says one San Diego teenager, Lilly Grossman, was originally diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and it took years to identify that the real cause of her problems was a mutation in a gene called ADCY5, leading to abnormal involuntary movement. At first Lily’s family felt they were the only ones facing this problem. They have since started a patient family organization (ADCY5.org) that supports others with this condition.

“Even though we know that the affected individuals have the gene mutation, we have no idea how the gene causes the observable traits that are widely variable across the individuals we know.  We need research tools to help us understand the biology of ADCY5 and other rare disease – it is not enough to just know the gene mutation. We always wanted to do a stem cell line that would help us get at these biological questions.”

Getting creative

But with little money to spend Chris faced what, for an ordinary person, might have been a series of daunting obstacles. She needed consent forms so that everyone donating tissue, particularly the children, knew exactly what was involved in giving samples and how those samples would be used in research.  She also needed materials to collect the samples. In addition she needed to find doctors and sites around the world where the families were located to help with the sample collection.  All of this was going to cost money, which for any non-profit is always in short supply.

So she went to work herself, creating a Research Participant’s Bill of Rights – a list of the rights that anyone taking part in medical research has. She developed forms explaining to children, teenagers and parents what happens if they give skin or blood samples as part of medical research, telling them how an individual’s personal medical health history may be used in research studies. And then she turned to medical supply companies and got them to donate the tubes and other materials that would be needed to collect and preserve the tissue and blood samples.

Even though ADCY5 is a very rare condition, Chris has collected samples from 42 individuals representing 13 different families, some affected with the condition as well as their unaffected siblings and parents. These samples come from families all around the world, from the US and Europe, to Canada and Australia.

“With CIRM we can build stem cell lines. We can lower the barrier of access for researchers who want to utilize these valuable stem cell lines that they may not have the resources to generate themselves.  The cell lines, in the hands of researchers, can potentially accelerate understanding of the biology. They can help us identify targets to focus on for therapies. They can help us screen currently approved medications or drugs, so we have something now that could help these kids now, not 14 years from now.”

The samples Chris collects will be made available to researchers not just here in the US, but around the world. Chris hopes this program will serve as a model for other rare diseases, creating stem cell lines from them to help close the gap between discovery research and clinical impact.

Rare bears for rare disease

But in everything she does, in the end it always comes down to the patient families. Chris says so many children and families battling a rare disease feel they are alone. So she created with her team, the RARE Bear program to let them know they aren’t alone, that they are part of a worldwide community of support. She says each bear is handmade by the RARE Bear Army which spans 9 countries including 45 states in the US.  Each RARE Bear is different, because “they are all one of a kind bears for one of a kind kids. And that’s why we are here, to help rare kids one bear at a time.”  The RARE Bear program, also helps with rare disease awareness, patient outreach and rare disease community building which is key for RARE Science Research Programs.

It’s working. Chris recently got this series of photos and notes from the parents of a young girl in England, after they got their bear.

“I wanted to say a huge heartfelt thank you for my daughters Rare bear. It arrived today to Essex, England & as you can see from my pictures Isabella loves her already! We have named her Faith as a reminder to never give up!”

Young man with spinal cord injury regains use of hands and arms after stem cell therapy

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Kris Boesen – Photo courtesy USC

Hope is such a fragile thing. We cling to it in bad times. It offers us a sense that we can bear whatever hardships we are facing today, and that tomorrow will be better.

Kris Boesen knows all about holding on to hope during bad times. On March 6th of this year he was left paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident. Kris and his parents were warned the damage might be permanent.

Kris says at that point, life was pretty bleak:

“I couldn’t drink, couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t text or pretty much do anything, I was basically just existing. I wasn’t living my life, I was existing.”

For Kris and his family hope came in the form of a stem cell clinical trial, run by Asterias Biotherapeutics and funded by CIRM. The Asterias team had already enrolled three patients in the trial, each of whom had 2 million cells transplanted into their necks, primarily to test for safety. In early April Kris became the first patient in the trial to get a transplant of 10 million stem cells.

Within two weeks he began to show signs of improvement, regaining movement and strength in his arms and hands:

“Now I have grip strength and do things like open a bottle of soda and feed myself. Whereas before I was relying on my parents, now after the stem cell therapy I am able to live my life.”

The therapy involves human embryonic stem cells that have been differentiated, or converted, into cells called oligodendrocyte progenitors. These are capable of becoming the kind of cells which help protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury.

The surgery was performed by Keck Medicine of USC’s Dr. Charles Liu. In a news release about the procedure, he says improvements of the kind Kris has experienced can make a huge difference in someone’s life:

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Dr. Charles Liu, Keck School of Medicine: Photo courtesy USC

“As of 90 days post-treatment, Kris has gained significant improvement in his motor function, up to two spinal cord levels. In Kris’ case, two spinal cord levels means the difference between using your hands to brush your teeth, operate a computer or do other things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, so having this level of functional independence cannot be overstated.”

We blogged about this work as recently as last week, when Asterias announced that the trial had passed two important safety hurdles.  But Kris’ story is the first to suggest this treatment might actually be working.

Randy Mills, CIRM’s President & CEO, says:

 “With each patient treated in this clinical trial we learn.  We gain more experience, all of which helps us put into better context the significance of this type of event for all people afflicted with debilitating spinal cord injuries. But let us not lose sight of the individual here.  While each participant in a clinical trial is part of the group, for them success is binary.  They either improve or they do not.  Kris bravely and selflessly volunteered for this clinical trial so that others may benefit from what we learn.  So it is fitting that today we celebrate Kris’ improvements and stop to thank all those participating in clinical trials for their selfless efforts.”

For patient advocates like Roman Reed, this was a moment to celebrate. Roman has been championing stem cell research for years and through his Roman Reed Foundation helped lay the groundwork for the research that led to this clinical trial:

This is clear affirmative affirmation that we are making Medical History!  We were able to give a paralyzed quadriplegic patient back the use of his hands! With only half a clinical dosage. Now this person may hold and grasp his loved ones hands in his own hands because of the actions of our last two decades for medical research for paralysis CURE! CARPE DIEM!”

It’s not unheard of for people with the kind of injury Kris had to make a partial recovery, to regain some use of their arms and hands, so it’s impossible to know right now if the stem cell transplant was the deciding factor.

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Kris at home: photo courtesy USC

Kris’ dad, Rodney, says he doesn’t care how it happened, he’s just delighted it did:

“He’s going to have a life, even if (the progress) stops just this second, and this is what he has, he’s going to have a better life than he would have definitely had before, because there are so many things that this opens up the world for him, he’s going to be able to use his hands.”


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Seeing is believing: how some scientists – including two funded by CIRM – are working to help the blind see

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How retinitis pigmentosa destroys vision – new stem cell research may help reverse that

“A pale hue”. For most of us that is a simple description, an observation about color. For Kristin Macdonald it’s a glimpse of the future. In some ways it’s a miracle. Kristin lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa (RP). For many years she was virtually blind. But now, thanks to a clinical trial funded by CIRM she is starting to see again.

Kristin’s story is one of several examples of restoring sight in an article entitled “Why There’s New Hope About Ending Blindness” in the latest issue of National Geographic.  The article explores different approaches to treating people who were either born without vision or lost their vision due to disease or injury.

Two of those stories feature research that CIRM has funded. One is the work that is helping Kristin. Retinitis pigmentosa is a relatively rare condition that destroys the photoreceptors at the back of the eye, the cells that actually allow us to sense light. The National Geographic piece highlights how a research team at the University of California, Irvine, led by Dr. Henry Klassen, has been working on a way to use stem cells to replace and repair the cells damaged by RP.

“Klassen has spent 30 years studying how to coax progenitor cells—former stem cells that have begun to move toward being specific cell types—into replacing or rehabilitating failed retinal cells. Having successfully used retinal progenitor cells to improve vision in mice, rats, cats, dogs, and pigs, he’s testing a similar treatment in people with advanced retinitis pigmentosa.”

We recently blogged about this work and the fact that this team just passed it’s first major milestone – – showing that in the first nine patients treated none experienced any serious side effects. A Phase 1 clinical trial like this is designed to test for safety, so it usually involves the use of relatively small numbers of cells. The fact that some of those treated, like Kristin, are showing signs of improvement in their vision is quite encouraging. We will be following this work very closely and reporting new results as soon as they are available.

The other CIRM-supported research featured in the article is led by what the writer calls “an eyeball dream team” featuring University of Southern California’s Dr. Mark Humayun, described as “a courteous, efficient, impeccably besuited man.” And it’s true, he is.

The team is developing a stem cell device to help treat age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

“He and his fellow principal investigator, University of California, Santa Barbara stem cell biologist Dennis Clegg, call it simply a patch. That patch’s chassis, made of the same stuff used to coat wiring for pacemakers and neural implants, is wafer thin, bottle shaped, and the size of a fat grain of rice. Onto this speck Clegg distributes 120,000 cells derived from embryonic stem cells.”

Humayun and Clegg have just started their clinical trial with this work so it is likely going to be some time before we have any results.

These are just two of the many different approaches, using several different methods, to address vision loss. The article is a fascinating read, giving you a sense of how science is transforming people’s lives. It’s also wonderfully written by David Dobbs, including observations like this:

“Neuroscientists love the eye because “it’s the only place you see the brain without drilling a hole,” as one put it to me.”

For a vision of the future, a future that could mean restoring vision to those who have lost it, it’s a terrific read.

 

Out of the mouths, or in this case hearts, of babes comes a hopeful therapy for heart attack patients

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Lessons learned from babies with heart failure could now help adults

Inspiration can sometimes come from the most unexpected of places. For English researcher Stephen Westaby it came from seeing babies who had heart attacks bounce back and recover. It led Westaby to a new line of research that could offer hope to people who have had a heart attack.

Westaby, a researcher at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, England, found that implanting a novel kind of stem cell in the hearts of people undergoing surgery following a heart attack had a surprisingly significant impact on their recovery.

Westaby got his inspiration from studies showing babies who had a heart attack and experienced scarring on their heart, were able to bounce back and, by the time they reached adolescence, had no scarring. He wondered if it was because the babies’ own heart stem cells were able to repair the damage.

Scarring is a common side effect of a heart attack and affects the ability of the heart to be able to pump blood efficiently around the body. As a result of that diminished pumping ability people have less energy, and are at increased risk of further heart problems. For years it was believed this scarring was irreversible. This study, published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Translational Research, suggests it may not be.

Westaby and his team implanted what they describe as a “novel mesenchymal precursor (iMP)” type of stem cell in the hearts of patients who were undergoing heart bypass surgery following a heart attack. The cells were placed in parts of the heart that showed sizeable scarring and poor blood flow.

Two years later the patients showed a 30 percent improvement in heart function, a 40 percent reduction in scar size, and a 70 percent improvement in quality of life.

In an interview with the UK Guardian newspaper, Westaby admitted he was not expecting such a clear cut benefit:

“Quite frankly it was a big surprise to find the area of scar in the damaged heart got smaller,”

Of course it has to be noted that the trial was small, only involving 11 patients. Nonetheless the findings are important and impressive. Westaby and his team now hope to do a much larger study.

CIRM is funding a clinical trial with Capricor that is taking a similar approach, using stem cells to rejuvenate the hearts of patients who have had heart attacks.

Fred Lesikar, one of the patient’s in the first phase of that trial, experienced a similar benefit to those in the English trial and told us about it in our Stories of Hope.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: turning on T cells; fixing our brains; progress and trends in stem cells; and one young man’s journey to recover from a devastating injury

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A healthy T cell

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.

Directing the creation of T cells. To paraphrase the GOP Presidential nominee, any sane person LOVES, LOVES LOVES their T cells, in a HUGE way, so HUGE. They scamper around the body getting rid of viruses and the tiny cancers we all have in us all the time. A CIRM-funded team at CalTech has worked out the steps our genetic machinery must take to make more of them, a first step in letting physicians turn up the action of our immune systems.

We have known for some time the identity of the genetic switch that is the last, critical step in turning blood stem cells into T cells, but nothing in our body is as simple as a single on-off event. The Caltech team isolated four genetic factors in the path leading to that main switch and, somewhat unsuspected, they found out those four steps had to be activated sequentially, not all at the same time. They discovered the path by engineering mouse cells so that the main T cell switch, Bcl11b, glows under a microscope when it is turned on.

“We identify the contributions of four regulators of Bcl11b, which are all needed for its activation but carry out surprisingly different functions in enabling the gene to be turned on,” said Ellen Rothenberg, the senior author in a university press release picked up by Innovations Report. “It’s interesting–the gene still needs the full quorum of transcription factors, but we now find that it also needs them to work in the right order.”

Video primer on stem cells in the brain.  In conjunction with an article in its August issue, Scientific American posted a video from the Brain Forum in Switzerland of Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan explaining the basics of adult versus pluripotent stem cells, and in particular how we are thinking about using them to repair diseases in the brain.

The 20-minute talk gives a brief review of pioneers who “stood alone in unmarked territory.” She asks how can stem cells be so powerful; and answers by saying they have lots of secrets and those secrets are what stem cell scientist like her are working to unravel.  She notes stem cells have never seen a brain, but if you show them a few factors they can become specialized nerves. After discussing collaborations in Europe to grow replacement dopamine neurons for Parkinson’s disease, she went on to describe her own effort to do the same thing in Huntington’s disease, but in this case create the striatal nerves lost in that disease.

The video closes with a discussion of how basic stem cell research can answer evolutionary questions, in particular how genetic changes allowed higher organisms to develop more complex nervous systems.

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CIRM Science Officers Kelly Shepard and Kent Fitzgerald

A stem cell review that hits close to home.  IEEE Pulse, a publication for scientists who mix engineering and medicine and biology, had one of their reporters interview two of our colleagues on CIRM’s science team. They asked senior science officers Kelly Shepard and Kent Fitzgerald to reflect on how the stem cell field has progressed based on their experience working to attract top researchers to apply for our grants and watching our panel of outside reviewers select the top 20 to 30 percent of each set of applicants.

One of the biggest changes has been a move from animal stem cell models to work with human stem cells, and because of CIRM’s dedicated and sustained funding through the voter initiative Proposition 71, California scientists have led the way in this change. Kelly described examples of how mouse and human systems are different and having data on human cells has been critical to moving toward therapies.

Kelly and Kent address several technology trends. They note how quickly stem cell scientists have wrapped their arms around the new trendy gene editing technology CRISPR and discuss ways it is being used in the field. They also discuss the important role of our recently developed ability to perform single cell analysis and other technologies like using vessels called exosomes that carry some of the same factors as stem cells without having to go through all the issues around transplanting whole cells.

“We’re really looking to move things from discovery to the clinic. CIRM has laid the foundation by establishing a good understanding of mechanistic biology and how stem cells work and is now taking the knowledge and applying it for the benefit of patients,” Kent said toward the end of the interview.

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Jake Javier and his family

Jake’s story: one young man’s journey to and through a stem cell transplant; As a former TV writer and producer I tend to be quite critical about the way TV news typically covers medical stories. But a recent story on KTVU, the Fox News affiliate here in the San Francisco Bay Area, showed how these stories can be done in a way that balances hope, and accuracy.

Reporter Julie Haener followed the story of Jake Javier – we have blogged about Jake before – a young man who broke his spine and was then given a stem cell transplant as part of the Asterias Biotherapeutics clinical trial that CIRM is funding.

It’s a touching story that highlights the difficulty treating these injuries, but also the hope that stem cell therapies holds out for people like Jake, and of course for his family too.

If you want to see how a TV story can be done well, this is a great example.

Helping stem cells sleep can boost their power to heal

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Mighty mouse muscle cells

We are often told that sleep is one of the most important elements of a healthy lifestyle, that it helps in the healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels – among other things.

It turns out that sleep, or something very similar, is equally important for stem cells, helping them retain their power or potency, which is a measure of their effectiveness and efficiency in generating the mature adult cells that are needed to repair damage. Now researchers from Stanford, with a little help from CIRM, have found a way to help stem cells get the necessary rest before kicking in to action. This could pave the way for a whole new approach to treating a variety of genetic disorders such as muscular dystrophy.

Inside out

One problem that has slowed down the development of stem cell therapies has been the inability to manipulate stem cells outside of the body, without reducing their potency. In the body these cells can remain quiescent or dormant for years until called in to action to repair an injury. That’s because they are found in a specialized environment or niche, one that has very particular physical, chemical and biological properties. However, once the stem cells are removed from that niche and placed in a dish in the lab they become active and start proliferating and changing into other kinds of cells.

You might think that’s good, because we want those stem cells to change and mature, but in this case we don’t, at least not yet. We want them to wait till we return them to the body to do their magic. Changing too soon means they have less power to do that.

Researchers at Stanford may have found a way to stop that happening, by creating an environment in the lab that more closely resembles that in the body, so the stem cells remain dormant longer.

As senior author, Thomas Rando, said in a Stanford news release, they have found a way to keep the stem cells dormant longer:

Dr. Thomas Rando, Stanford

Dr. Thomas Rando, Stanford

“Normally these stem cells like to cuddle right up against their native muscle fibers. When we disrupt that interaction, the cells are activated and begin to divide and become less stemlike. But now we’ve designed an artificial substrate that, to the cells, looks, smells and feels like a real muscle fiber. When we also bathe these fibers in the appropriate factors, we find that the stem cells maintain high-potency and regenerative capacity.”

Creating an artificial home

When mouse muscle stem cells (MuSCs) are removed from the mouse they lose their potency after just two days. So the Stanford team set out to identify what elements in the mouse niche helped the cells remain dormant. They identified the molecular signature of the quiescent MuSCs and used that to help screen different compounds to see which ones could help keep those cells dormant, even after they were removed from the mouse and collected in a lab dish.

They whittled down the number of potential compounds involved in this process from 50 to 10, and then tested these in different combinations until they found a formulation that kept the stem cells quiescent for at least 2 days outside of the mouse.

But that was just the start. Next they experimented with different kinds of engineered muscle fibers, to simulate the physical environment inside the mouse niche. After testing various materials, they found that the one with the greatest elasticity was the most effective and used that to create a kind of scaffold for the stem cells.

The big test

The artificial niche they created clearly worked in helping keep the MuSCs in a dormant state outside of the mouse. But would they work when transplanted back into the mouse? To answer this question they tested these stem cells to see if they retained their ability to self-renew and to change into other kinds of cells in the mouse. The good news is they did, and were far more effective at both than MuSCs that had not been stored in the artificial niche.

So, great news for mice but what about people, would this same approach work with human muscle stem cells (hMuSCs)? They next tested this approach using hMuSCs and found that the hMuSCs cultured on the artificial niche were more effective at both self-renewal and retaining their potency than hMuSCs kept in more conventional conditions, at least in the lab.

In the study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers say this finding could help overcome some of the challenges that have slowed down the development of effective therapies:

“Research on MuSCs, hematopoietic stem cells and neural stem cells has shown that very small numbers of quiescent stem cells, even single cells, can replace vast amounts of tissue; culture systems that that maintain stem cell quiescence may allow these findings to be translated to clinical practice. In addition, the possibility of culturing hMuSCs for longer time periods without loss of potency in order to correct mutations associated with genetic disorders, such as muscular dystrophy, followed by transplantation of the corrected cells to replace the pathogenic tissue may enable improved stem cell therapeutics for muscle disorders.”

A Dream made me change my mind. Almost.

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Dream Alliance: photo courtesy Daily Telegraph, UK

On Friday I was faced with the real possibility that a horse had made an ass out of me.

Over the years we have written many articles about the risks of unproven stem cell therapies, treatments that have not yet been shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective. Often we have highlighted the cases of high profile athletes who have undergone stem cell treatments for injuries when there is little evidence that the treatments they are getting work.

Well, on Friday I saw an athlete who bounced back from a potentially career-ending injury to enjoy an amazing career thanks to a stem cell treatment. I wondered if I was going to have to revise my thoughts on this topic. Then my wife pointed out to me that the athlete was a horse.

We had been watching the movie Dark Horse, a truly delightful true story about a group of working class people in a Welsh mining village who bred and raised a horse that went on to great success as a race horse – often beating out thoroughbreds that were worth millions of dollars.

 

At one point the horse, Dream Alliance, suffered an almost fatal injury. Everyone assumed his career was over. But thanks to a stem cell treatment he was able to return to the track and became the first horse to win a major race after undergoing stem cell surgery.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that stem cells can help heal serious injuries in horses, the researchers at UC Davis have been using them to help treat horses for years – with great success. The danger comes in then assuming that just because stem cells work for horses, they’ll work for people. And that if they can cure one kind of injury, why not another.

That thought was driven home to me on Saturday when I was giving a talk to a support group for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a nasty, rapidly progressive disease that attacks the motor nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, destroying a person’s ability to move, eat, speak or breath.

One person asked about a clinic they had been talking to which claimed it might be able to help them. The clinic takes fat from the person with ALS, isolates the stem cells in the fat and injects it back into the person. The clinic claims it’s been very effective in treating injuries such as torn muscles, and that it also works for other problems like Parkinson’s so it might help someone with ALS.

And that’s the problem. We hear about one success story that seems to prove stem cells can do amazing things, and then we are tempted to hope that if it works for one kind of injury, it might work for another, or even for a neurodegenerative disease.

And hope doesn’t come cheap. The cost of the procedure was almost $10,000.

If you have a disease like ALS for which there is no cure, and where the life expectancy is between two to five years, you can understand why someone would be tempted to try anything, no matter how implausible. What is hard is when you have to tell them that without any proof that it works, and little scientific rational as to why it would work, that it’s hard to recommend they try using their own fat cells to treat their ALS.

At CIRM we are investing more than $56.5 million in 21 different projects targeting ALS.   We are hopeful one of them, Clive Svendsen’s research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center,  will soon get approval from the FDA to start a clinical trial.

Much as we would like to believe in miracles, medical breakthroughs usually only come after years of hard, methodical work. It would be great if injecting your own fat-derived stem cells into your body could cure you of all manner of ailments. But there’s no evidence to suggest it will.

The movie Dark Horse shows that for one horse, for one group of people in a small Welsh mining village, stem cells helped create a happy ending. We are hoping stem cells will one day offer the same sense of hope and possibility for people battling deadly diseases like ALS. But that day is not yet here.

 

 

Approach that inspires DREADD could create new way to treat Parkinson’s disease

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Dopamine producing brain nerve cells, made from embryonic stem cells

Imagine having a treatment for Parkinson’s that acts like a light switch, enabling you to turn it on or off depending on your needs. Well, that’s what researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have come up with. And if it works, it might help change the way we treat many other diseases.

For years researchers have been trying to come up with a way of replacing the dopamine-producing brain nerve cells, or neurons, that are attacked and destroyed by Parkinson’s. Those cells regulate movement and as they are destroyed they diminish a person’s ability to control their body, their movement and even their emotions.

Attempts to transplant dopamine-producing cells into the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease have met with mixed results. In some cases the transplanted cells have worked. In many cases the cells don’t make enough dopamine to control movement. In about 10 percent of cases the cells make too much dopamine, causing uncontrolled movements called graft-induced dyskinesia.

But now the researchers at UW Madison have found a new approach that might change that. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR (you can read about that here) they reprogrammed embryonic stem cells to become two different types of neurons containing a kind of genetic switch called a DREADD, which stands for designer receptor exclusively activated by designer drug. When they gave mice the designer drug they created to activate DREADD, one group of cells boosted production of dopamine, the other group shut down its dopamine production.

In a news release about the study, which is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, lead author Su-Chun Zhang says this kind of control is essential in developing safe, effective therapies:

“If we are going to use cell therapy, we need to know what the transplanted cell will do. If its activity is not right, we may want to activate it, or we may need to slow or stop it.”

Zhang says the cells developed using this approach have another big advantage:

“We can turn them on or off, up or down, using a designer drug that can only act on cells that express the designer receptor. The drug does not affect any host cell because they don’t have that specialized receptor. It’s a very clean system.”

Tests in mice showed that the cells, and the designer drug, worked as the researchers hoped they would with some cells producing more dopamine, and others halting production.

It’s an encouraging start but a lot more work needs to be done to make sure the the genetically engineered stem cells, and the designer drug, are safe and that they can get the cells to go to the part of the brain that needs increased dopamine production.

As Zhang says, having a method of remotely controlling the action of transplanted cells, one that is reversible, could create a whole new way of treating diseases.

“This is the first proof of principle, using Parkinson’s disease as the model, but it may apply to many other diseases, and not just neurological diseases.”