New stem cell technique gives brain support cells a starring role

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

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

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

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

Finding a better way

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

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

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

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

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

But wait, there’s more!

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

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

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

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: developing the nervous system, aging stem cells and identical twins not so identical

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

New theory for how the nervous system develops.

There’s a new theory on the block for how the nervous system is formed thanks to a study published yesterday by UCLA stem cell scientists in the journal Neuron.

The theory centers around axons, thin extensions projecting from nerve cells that transmit electrical signals to other cells in the body. In the developing nervous system, nerve cells extend axons into the brain and spinal cord and into our muscles (a process called innervation). Axons are guided to their final destinations by different chemicals that tell axons when to grow, when to not grow, and where to go.

Previously, scientists believed that one of these important chemical signals, a protein called netrin 1, exerted its influence over long distances in a gradient-like fashion from a structure in the developing nervous system called the floor plate. You can think of it like a like a cell phone tower where the signal is strongest the closer you are to the tower but you can still get some signal even when you’re miles away.

The UCLA team, led by senior author and UCLA professor Dr. Samantha Butler, questioned this theory because they knew that neural progenitor cells, which are the precursors to nerve cells, produce netrin1 in the developing spinal cord. They believed that the netrin1 secreted from these progenitor cells also played a role in guiding axon growth in a localized manner.

To test their hypothesis, they studied neural progenitor cells in the developing spines of mouse embryos. When they eliminated netrin1 from the neural progenitor cells, the axons went haywire and there was no rhyme or reason to their growth patterns.

Left: axons (green, pink, blue) form organized patterns in the normal developing mouse spinal cord. Right: removing netrin1 results in highly disorganized axon growth. (UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Neuron)

A UCLA press release explained what the scientists discovered next,

“They found that neural progenitors organize axon growth by producing a pathway of netrin1 that directs axons only in their local environment and not over long distances. This pathway of netrin1 acts as a sticky surface that encourages axon growth in the directions that form a normal, functioning nervous system.”

Like how ants leave chemical trails for other ants in their colony to follow, neural progenitor cells leave trails of netrin1 in the spinal cord to direct where axons go. The UCLA team believes they can leverage this newfound knowledge about netrin1 to make more effective treatments for patients with nerve damage or severed nerves.

In future studies, the team will tease apart the finer details of how netrin1 impacts axon growth and how it can be potentially translated into the clinic as a new therapeutic for patients. And from the sounds of it, they already have an idea in mind:

“One promising approach is to implant artificial nerve channels into a person with a nerve injury to give regenerating axons a conduit to grow through. Coating such nerve channels with netrin1 could further encourage axon regrowth.”

Age could be written in our stem cells.

The Harvard Gazette is running an interesting series on how Harvard scientists are tackling issues of aging with research. This week, their story focused on stem cells and how they’re partly to blame for aging in humans.

Stem cells are well known for their regenerative properties. Adult stem cells can rejuvenate tissues and organs as we age and in response to damage or injury. However, like most house hold appliances, adult stem cells lose their regenerative abilities or effectiveness over time.

Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, explained,

“We do think that stem cells are a key player in at least some of the manifestations of age. The hypothesis is that stem cell function deteriorates with age, driving events we know occur with aging, like our limited ability to fully repair or regenerate healthy tissue following injury.”

Harvard scientists have evidence suggesting that certain tissues, such as nerve cells in the brain, age sooner than others, and they trigger other tissues to start the aging process in a domino-like effect. Instead of treating each tissue individually, the scientists believe that targeting these early-onset tissues and the stem cells within them is a better anti-aging strategy.

David Sadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
(Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)

Dr. Scadden is particularly interested in studying adult stem cell populations in aging tissues and has found that “instead of armies of similarly plastic stem cells, it appears there is diversity within populations, with different stem cells having different capabilities.”

If you lose the stem cell that’s the best at regenerating, that tissue might age more rapidly.  Dr. Scadden compares it to a game of chess, “If we’re graced and happen to have a queen and couple of bishops, we’re doing OK. But if we are left with pawns, we may lose resilience as we age.”

The Harvard Gazette piece also touches on a changing mindset around the potential of stem cells. When stem cell research took off two decades ago, scientists believed stem cells would grow replacement organs. But those days are still far off. In the immediate future, the potential of stem cells seems to be in disease modeling and drug screening.

“Much of stem cell medicine is ultimately going to be ‘medicine,’” Scadden said. “Even here, we thought stem cells would provide mostly replacement parts.  I think that’s clearly changed very dramatically. Now we think of them as contributing to our ability to make disease models for drug discovery.”

I encourage you to read the full feature as I only mentioned a few of the highlights. It’s a nice overview of the current state of aging research and how stem cells play an important role in understanding the biology of aging and in developing treatments for diseases of aging.

Identical twins not so identical (Todd Dubnicoff)

Ever since Takahashi and Yamanaka showed that adult cells could be reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state, researchers have been wrestling with a key question: exactly how alike are these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to embryonic stem cells (ESCs)?

It’s an important question to settle because iPSCs have several advantages over ESCs. Unlike ESCs, iPSCs don’t require the destruction of an embryo so they’re mostly free from ethical concerns. And because they can be derived from a patient’s cells, if iPSC-derived cell therapies were given back to the same patient, they should be less likely to cause immune rejection. Despite these advantages, the fact that iPSCs are artificially generated by the forced activation of specific genes create lingering concerns that for treatments in humans, delivering iPSC-derived therapies may not be as safe as their ESC counterparts.

Careful comparisons of DNA between iPSCs and ESCs have shown that they are indeed differences in chemical tags found on specific spots on the cell’s DNA. These tags, called epigenetic (“epi”, meaning “in addition”) modifications can affect the activity of genes independent of the underlying genetic sequence. These variations in epigenetic tags also show up when you compare two different preparations, or cell lines, of iPSCs. So, it’s been difficult for researchers to tease out the source of these differences. Are these differences due to the small variations in DNA sequence that are naturally seen from one cell line to the other? Or is there some non-genetic reason for the differences in the iPSCs’ epigenetic modifications?

Marian and Vivian Brown, were San Francisco’s most famous identical twins. Photo: Christopher Michel

A recent CIRM-funded study by a Salk Institute team took a clever approach to tackle this question. They compared epigenetic modifications between iPSCs derived from three sets of identical twins. They still found several epigenetic variations between each set of twins. And since the twins have identical DNA sequences, the researchers could conclude that not all differences seen between iPSC cell lines are due to genetics. Athanasia Panopoulos, a co-first author on the Cell Stem Cell article, summed up the results in a press release:

“In the past, researchers had found lots of sites with variations in methylation status [specific term for the epigenetic tag], but it was hard to figure out which of those sites had variation due to genetics. Here, we could focus more specifically on the sites we know have nothing to do with genetics. The twins enabled us to ask questions we couldn’t ask before. You’re able to see what happens when you reprogram cells with identical genomes but divergent epigenomes, and figure out what is happening because of genetics, and what is happening due to other mechanisms.”

With these new insights in hand, the researchers will have a better handle on interpreting differences between individual iPSC cell lines as well as their differences with ESC cell lines. This knowledge will be important for understanding how these variations may affect the development of future iPSC-based cell therapies.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Plasticity in the pancreas and two cool stem cell tools added to the research toolbox

There’s more plasticity in the pancreas than we thought. You’re taught a lot of things about the world when you’re young. As you get older, you realize that not everything you’re told holds true and it’s your own responsibility to determine fact from fiction. This evolution in understanding happens in science too. Scientists do research that leads them to believe that biological processes happen a certain way, only to sometimes find, a few years later, that things are different or not exactly what they had originally thought.

There’s a great example of this in a study published this week in Cell Metabolism about the pancreas. Scientists from UC Davis found that the pancreas, which secretes a hormone called insulin that helps regulate the levels of sugar in your blood, has more “plasticity” than was originally believed. In this case, plasticity refers to the ability of a tissue or organ to regenerate itself by replacing lost or damaged cells.

The long-standing belief in this field was that the insulin producing cells, called beta cells, are replenished when beta cells actively divide to create more copies of themselves. In patients with type 1 diabetes, these cells are specifically targeted and killed off by the immune system. As a result, the beta cell population is dramatically reduced, and patients have to go on life-long insulin treatment.

UC Davis researchers have identified another type of insulin-producing cell in the islets, which appears to be an immature beta cell shown in red. (UC Davis)

But it turns out there is another cell type in the pancreas that is capable of making beta cells and they look like a teenage, less mature version of beta cells. The UC Davis team identified these cells in mice and in samples of human pancreas tissue. These cells hangout at the edges of structures called islets, which are clusters of beta cells within the pancreas. Upon further inspection, the scientists found that these immature beta cells can secrete insulin but cannot detect blood glucose like mature beta cells. They also found their point of origin: the immature beta cells developed from another type of pancreatic cell called the alpha cell.

Diagram of immature beta cells from Cell Metabolism.

In coverage by EurekAlert, Dr Andrew Rakeman, the director of discovery research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, commented on the importance of this study’s findings and how it could be translated into a new approach for treating type 1 diabetes patients:

“The concept of harnessing the plasticity in the islet to regenerate beta cells has emerged as an intriguing possibility in recent years. The work from Dr. Huising and his team is showing us not only the degree of plasticity in islet cells, but the paths these cells take when changing identity. Adding to that the observations that the same processes appear to be occurring in human islets raises the possibility that these mechanistic insights may be able to be turned into therapeutic approaches for treating diabetes.”

 

Say hello to iPSCORE, new and improved tools for stem cell research. Stem cells are powerful tools to model human disease and their power got a significant boost this week from a new study published in Stem Cell Reports, led by scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The team developed a collection of over 200 induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) lines derived from people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. They call this stem cell tool kit “iPSCORE”, which stands for iPSC Collection for Omic Research (omics refers to a field of study in biology ending in -omics, such as genomics or proteomics). The goal of iPSCORE is to identify particular genetic variants (unique differences in DNA sequence between people’s genomes) that are associated with specific diseases and to understand why they cause disease at the molecular level.

In an interview with Phys.org, lead scientist on the study, Dr. Kelly Frazer, further explained the power of iPSCORE:

“The iPSCORE collection contains 75 lines from people of non-European ancestry, including East Asian, South Asian, African American, Mexican American, and Multiracial. It includes multigenerational families and monozygotic twins. This collection will enable us to study how genetic variation influences traits, both at a molecular and physiological level, in appropriate human cell types, such as heart muscle cells. It will help researchers investigate not only common but also rare, and even family-specific variations.”

This research is a great example of scientists identifying a limitation in stem cell research and expanding the stem cell tool kit to model diseases in a diverse human population.

A false color scanning electron micrograph of cultured human neuron from induced pluripotent stem cell. Credit: Mark Ellisman and Thomas Deerinck, UC San Diego.

Stem cells that can grow into ANY type of tissue. Embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the body, earning them the classification of pluripotent. But there is one type of tissue that embryonic stem cells can’t make and it’s called extra-embryonic tissue. This tissue forms the supportive tissue like the placenta that allows an embryo to develop into a healthy baby in the womb.

Stem cells that can develop into both extra-embryonic and embryonic tissue are called totipotent, and they are extremely hard to isolate and study in the lab because scientists lack the methods to maintain them in their totipotent state. Having the ability to study these special stem cells will allow scientists to answer questions about early embryonic development and fertility issues in women.

Reporting this week in the journal Cell, scientists from the Salk Institute in San Diego and Peking University in China identified a cocktail of chemicals that can stabilize human stem cells in a totipotent state where they can give rise to either tissue type. They called these more primitive stem cells extended pluripotent stem cells or EPS cells.

Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Bemonte, co–senior author of the paper, explained the problem their study addressed and the solution it revealed in a Salk news release:

“During embryonic development, both the fertilized egg and its initial cells are considered totipotent, as they can give rise to all embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages. However, the capture of stem cells with such developmental potential in vitro has been a major challenge in stem cell biology. This is the first study reporting the derivation of a stable stem cell type that shows totipotent-like bi-developmental potential towards both embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages.”

Human EPS cells (green) can be detected in both the embryonic part (left) and extra-embryonic parts (placenta and yolk sac, right) of a mouse embryo. (Salk Institute)

Using this new method, the scientists discovered that human EPS stem cells were able to develop chimeric embryos with mouse stem cells more easily than regular embryonic stem cells. First author on the study, Jun Wu, explained why this ability is important:

“The superior chimeric competency of both human and mouse EPS cells is advantageous in applications such as the generation of transgenic animal models and the production of replacement organs. We are now testing to see whether human EPS cells are more efficient in chimeric contribution to pigs, whose organ size and physiology are closer to humans.”

The Salk team reported on advancements in generating interspecies chimeras earlier this year. In one study, they were able to grow rat organs – including the pancreas, heart and eyes – in a mouse. In another study, they grew human tissue in early-stage pig and cattle embryos with the goal of eventually developing ways to generate transplantable organs for humans. You can read more about their research in this Salk news release.

Rhythmic brain circuits built from stem cells

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

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

Circuitoids: a neural network in a lab dish

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

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

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

Making neural networks dance to a different beat

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

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

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

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

Samuel Pfaff. (Salk Institute)

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

Brain Models Get an Upgrade: 3D Mini-Brains

Every year, companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google work tirelessly to upgrade their computer, software and smartphone technologies to satisfy growing demands for more functionality. Much like these companies, biomedical scientists work tirelessly to improve the research techniques and models they use to understand and treat human disease.

Today, I’ll be talking about a cool stem cell technology that is an upgrade of current models of neurological diseases. It involves growing stem cells in a 3D environment and turning them into miniature organs called organoids that have similar structures and functions compared to real organs. Scientists have developed techniques to create organoids for many different parts of the body including the brain, gut, lungs and kidneys. These tiny 3D models are useful for understanding how organs are formed and how viruses or genetic mutations can affect their development and ability to function.

Brain Models Get an Upgrade

Organoids are especially useful for modeling complex neurological diseases where current animal and 2D cell-based models lack the ability to fully represent the cause, nature and symptoms of a disease. The first cerebral, or brain, organoids were generated in 2013 by Dr. Madeline Lancaster in Austria. These “mini-brains” contained nerve cells and structures found in the cortex, the outermost layer of the human brain.

Since their inception, mini-brains have been studied to understand brain development, test new drugs and dissect diseases like microcephaly – a disease that causes abnormal brain development and is characterized by very small skulls. Mini-brains are still a new technology, and the question of whether these organoids are representative of real human brains in their anatomy and behavior has remained unanswered until now.

Published today in Cell Reports, scientists from the Salk Institute reported that mini-brains are more like human brains compared to 2D cell-based models where brain cells are grown in a single layer on a petri dish. To generate mini-brains, they collaborated with a European team that included the Lancaster lab. They grew human embryonic stem cells in a 3D environment with a cocktail of chemicals that prompted them to develop into brain tissue over a two-month period.

Cross-section of a mini-brain. (Madeline Lancaster/MRC-LMB)

Cross-section of a mini-brain. (Madeline Lancaster/MRC-LMB)

After generating the mini-brains, the next step was to prove that these organoids were an upgrade for modeling brain development. The teams found that the cells and structures formed in the mini-brains were more like human brain tissue at the same stage of early brain development than the 2D models.

Dr. Juergen Knoblich, co-senior author of the new paper and head of the European lab explained in a Salk News Release, “Our work demonstrates the remarkable degree to which human brain development can be recapitulated in a dish in cerebral organoids.”

Are Mini-Brains the Real Thing?

The next question the teams asked was whether mini-brains had similar functions and behaviors to real brains. To answer that question, the scientists turned to epigenetics. This is a fancy word for the study of chemical modifications that influence gene expression without altering the DNA sequence in your genome. The epigenome can be thought of as a set of chemical tags that help coordinate which genes are turned on and which are turned off in a cell. Epigenetics plays important roles in human development and in causing certain diseases.

The Salk team studied the epigenomes of cells in the mini-brains to see whether their patterns were similar to cells found in human brain tissue. Interestingly, they found that the epigenetic patterns in the 3D mini-brains were not like those of real brain tissue at the same developmental stage. Instead they shared a commonality with the 2D brain models and had random epigenetic patterns. While the reason for these results is still unknown, the authors explained that it is common for cells and tissues grown in a lab dish to have these differences.

In a Salk news release, senior author and Salk professor Dr. Joseph Ecker said that even though the current mini-brain models aren’t perfect yet, scientists can still gather valuable information from them in the meantime.

“Our findings show that cerebral organoids as a 3D model of brain function are getting closer to a real brain than 2D models, so perhaps by using the epigenetic pattern as a gauge we can get even closer.”

And while the world eagerly waits for the next release of the iPhone 7, neuroscientists will be eagerly waiting for a new and improved version of mini-brains. Hopefully the next upgrade will produce organoids that behave more like the real thing and can model complex neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, where so many questions remain unanswered.

Stem Cell Stories that caught our eye: a womb with a view, reversing aging and stabilizing stem cells

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.

Today we bring you a trifecta of stem cell stories that were partially funded by grants from CIRM.

A womb with a view: using 3D imaging to observe embryo implantation. Scientists have a good understanding of how the beginning stages of pregnancy happen. An egg cell from a woman is fertilized by a sperm cell from a man and the result is a single cell called a zygote. Over the next week, the zygote divides into multiple cells that form the developing embryo. At the end of that period, the embryo hatches out of its protective membrane and begins implanting itself into the lining of the mother’s uterus.

It’s possible to visualize the early stages of embryo development in culture dishes, which has helped scientists understand the biological steps required for an embryo to survive and develop into a healthy fetus. However, something that is not easy to observe is the implantation stage of the embryo in the uterus. This process is complex and involves a restructuring of the uterine wall to accommodate the developing embryo. As you can imagine, replicating these events would be extremely complicated and difficult to do in a culture dish, and current imaging techniques aren’t adequate either.

That’s where new CIRM-funded research from a team at UCSF comes to the rescue. They developed a 3D imaging technology and combined it with a previously developed “tissue clearing” method, which uses chemicals to turn tissues translucent, to provide clear images of the uterine wall during embryo implantation in mice. Their work was published this week in the journal Development.

According to a UCSF news release,

“Using their new approach, the team observed that the uterine lining becomes extensively folded as it approaches its window of receptivity for an embryo to implant. The geometry of the folds in which the incoming embryos dwell is important, the team found, as genetic mutants with defects in implantation have improper patterns of folding.”

Ultimately, the team aims to use their new imaging technology to get an inside scoop on how to prevent or treat pregnancy disorders and also how to improve the outcome of pregnancies by in vitro fertilization.

Senior author on the study, UCSF professor Diana Laird concluded:

“This new view of early pregnancy lets us ask fundamentally new questions about how the embryo finds its home within the uterus and what factors are needed for it to implant successfully. Once we can understand how these processes happen normally, we can also ask why certain genetic mutations cause pregnancies to fail, to study the potential dangers of environmental toxins such as the chemicals in common household products, and even why metabolic disease and obesity appears to compromise implantation.”

If you want to see this womb with a view, check out the video below.

Watch these two videos for more information:

Salk scientists reverse signs of aging in mice. For our next scintillating stem cell story, we’re turning back the clock – the aging clock that is. Scientists from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, reported an interesting method in the journal Cell  that reverses some signs of aging in mice. They found that periodic expression of embryonic stem cell genes in skin cells and mice could reverse some signs of aging.

The Salk team made use of cellular reprogramming tools developed by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Shinya Yamanaka. He found that four genes normally expressed in embryonic stem cells could revert adult cells back to a pluripotent stem cell state – a process called cellular reprogramming. Instead of turning adult cells back into stem cells, the Salk scientists asked whether the Yamanaka factors could instead turn back the clock on older, aging cells – making them healthier without turning them back into stem cells or cancer-forming cells.

The team found that they could rejuvenate skin cells from mice without turning them back into stem cells if they turned on the Yamanaka genes on for a short period of time. These skin cells were taken from mice that had progeria – a disease that causes them to age rapidly. Not only did their skin cells look and act younger after the treatment, but when the scientists used a similar technique to turn on the Yamanaka genes in progeria mice, they saw rejuvenating effects in the mice including a more rapid healing and regeneration of muscle and pancreas tissue.

(Left) impaired muscle repair in aged mice; (right) improved muscle regeneration in aged mice subjected to reprogramming. (Salk Institute)

(Left) impaired muscle repair in aged mice; (right) improved muscle regeneration in aged mice subjected to reprogramming. (Salk Institute)

The senior author on the study, Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, acknowledged in a Salk news release that this is early stage work that focuses on animal models, not humans:

“Obviously, mice are not humans and we know it will be much more complex to rejuvenate a person. But this study shows that aging is a very dynamic and plastic process, and therefore will be more amenable to therapeutic interventions than what we previously thought.”

This story was very popular, which is not surprising as aging research is particularly fascinating to people who want to live longer lives. It was covered by many news outlets including STATnews, Scientific American and Science Magazine. I also recommend reading Paul Knoepfler’s journal club-style blog on the study for an objective take on the findings and implications of the study. Lastly, you can learn more about the science of this work by watching the movie below by the Salk.

Movie:

Stabilizing unstable stem cells. Our final stem cell story is brought to you by scientists from the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center. They found that embryonic stem cells can harbor genetic instabilities that can be passed on to their offspring and cause complications, or even disease, later in life. Their work was published in two separate studies in Cell Stem Cell and Cell Reports.

The science behind the genetic instabilities is too complicated to explain in this blog, so I’ll refer you to the UCLA news release for more details. In brief, the UCLA team found a way to reverse the genetic instability in the stem cells such that the mature cells that they developed into turned out healthy.

As for the future impact of this research, “The research team, led by Kathrin Plath, found a way to correct the instability by resetting the stem cells from a later stage of development to an earlier stage of development. This fundamental discovery could have great impact on the creation of healthy tissues to cure disease.”

Advancements in gene editing make blind rats see light

Gene editing is a rapidly advancing technology that scientists are using to manipulate the genomes of cells with precision and accuracy. Many of these experiments are being conducted on stem cells to genetic mutations in an attempt to find cures for various diseases like cancer, HIV and blindness.

Speaking of blindness, researchers from the Salk Institute reported today that they’ve improved upon the current CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology and found a more efficient way to edit the genomes of cells in living animals. They used their technology on blind rats that had a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and found that the rats were able to see light following the treatment.

The really exciting part about their findings is that their CRISPR technology works well on dividing cells like stem cells and progenitor cells, which is typically how scientists use the CRISPR technology, but it also works on adult cells that do not divide – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished before.

Their results, which were published today in the journal Nature, offer a new tool that scientists can use to target cells that no longer divide in tissues and organs like the eye, brain, pancreas and heart.

According to a Salk news release:

“The new Salk technology is ten times more efficient than other methods at incorporating new DNA into cultures of dividing cells, making it a promising tool for both research and medicine. But, more importantly, the Salk technique represents the first time scientists have managed to insert a new gene into a precise DNA location in adult cells that no longer divide, such as those of the eye, brain, pancreas or heart, offering new possibilities for therapeutic applications in these cells.”

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

CRISPR gene edited neurons, which are non-dividing brain cells, are shown in green while cell nuclei are shown in blue. (Salk)

Salk Professor and senior author on the study, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, explained the big picture of their findings:

“We are very excited by the technology we discovered because it’s something that could not be done before. For the first time, we now have a technology that allows us to modify the DNA of non-dividing cells, to fix broken genes in the brain, heart and liver. It allows us for the first time to be able to dream of curing diseases that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”

If you want to learn more about the science behind their new CRISPR gene editing technology, check out the Salk news release and coverage in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. You can also watch this short three minute video about the study made by the Salk Institute.

Salk scientists explain why brain cells are genetically diverse

twin_boys

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.

Salk Scientists Unlock New Secrets of Autism Using Human Stem Cells

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder whose mental, physical, social and emotional symptoms are highly variable from person to person. Because individuals exhibit different combinations and severities of symptoms, the concept of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now used to define the range of conditions.

There are many hypotheses for why autism occurs in humans (which some estimates suggest now affects around 3.5 million people in the US). Some of the disorders are thought to be at the cellular level, where nerve cells do not develop normally and organize properly in the brain, and some are thought to be at the molecular level where the building blocks in cells don’t function properly. Scientists have found these clues by using tools such as studying human genetics and animal models, imaging the brains of ASD patients, and looking at the pathology of ASD brains to see what has gone wrong to cause the disease.

Unfortunately, these tools alone are not sufficient to recreate all aspects of ASD. This is where cellular models have stepped in to help. Scientists are now developing human stem cell derived models of ASD to create “autism in a dish” and are finding that the nerve cells in these models show characteristics of these disorders.

Stem cell models of autism and ASD

We’ve reported on some of these studies in previous blogs. A group from UCSD lead by CIRM grantee Alysson Muotri used induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells to model non-syndromic autism (where autism is the primary diagnosis). The work has been dubbed the “Tooth Fairy Project” – parents can send in their children’s recently lost baby teeth which contain cells that can be reprogrammed into iPS cells that can then be turned into brain cells that exhibit symptoms of autism. By studying iPS cells from individuals with non-syndromic autism, the team found a mutation in the TRPC6 gene that was linked to abnormal brain cell development and function and is also linked to Rett syndrome – a rare form of autism predominantly seen in females.

Another group from Yale generated “mini-brains” or organoids derived from the iPS cells of ASD patients. They specifically found that ASD mini-brains had an increased number of a type of nerve cell called inhibitory neurons and that blocking the production of a protein called FOXG1 returned these nerve cells back to their normal population count.

Last week, a group from the Salk Institute in collaboration with scientists at UC San Diego published findings about another stem cell model for ASD that offers new clues into the early neurodevelopmental defects seen in ASD patients.  This CIRM-funded study was led by senior author Rusty Gage and was published last week in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Unlocking clues to autism using patient stem cells

Gage and his team were fascinated by the fact that as many as 30 percent of people with ASD experience excessive brain growth during early in development. The brains of these patients have more nerve cells than healthy individuals of the same age, and these extra nerve cells fail to organize properly and in some cases form too many nerve connections that impairs their overall function.

To understand what is going wrong in early stages of ASD, Gage generated iPS cells from ASD individuals who experienced abnormal brain growth at an early age (their brains had grown up to 23 percent faster when they were toddlers compared to normal toddlers). They closely studied how these ASD iPS cells developed into brain stem cells and then into nerve cells in a dish and compared their developmental progression to that of healthy iPS cells from normal individuals.

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

They quickly observed a problem with neurogenesis – a term used to describe how brain stem cells multiply and create new nerve cells in the brain. Brain stem cells derived from ASD iPS cells displayed more neurogenesis than normal brain stem cells, and thus were creating an excess amount of nerve cells. The scientists also found that the extra nerve cells failed to form as many synaptic connections with each other, an essential process that allows nerve cells to send signals and form a functional network of communication, and also behaved abnormally and overall had less activity compared to healthy neurons. Interestingly, they saw fewer inhibitory neuron connections in ASD neurons which is contrary to what the Yale study found.

The abnormal activity observed in ASD neurons was partially corrected when they treated the nerve cells with a drug called IGF-1, which is currently being tested in clinical trials as a possible treatment for autism. According to a Salk news release, “the group plans to use the patient cells to investigate the molecular mechanisms behind IGF-1’s effects, in particular probing for changes in gene expression with treatment.”

Will stem cells be the key to understanding autism?

It’s clear that human iPS cell models of ASD are valuable in helping tease apart some of the mechanisms behind this very complicated group of disorders. Gage’s opinion is that:

“This technology allows us to generate views of neuron development that have historically been intractable. We’re excited by the possibility of using stem cell methods to unravel the biology of autism and to possibly screen for new drug treatments for this debilitating disorder.”

However, to me it’s also clear that different autism stem cell models yield different results, but these differences are likely due to which populations the iPS cells are derived from. Creating more cell lines from different ASD subpopulations will surely answer more questions about the developmental differences and differences in brain function seen in adults.

Lastly, one of the co-authors on the study, Carolina Marchetto, made a great point in the Salk news release by acknowledging that their findings are based on studying cells in a dish, not actual patient’s brains. However, Marchetto believes that these cells are useful tools for studying autism:

“It never fails to amaze me when we can see similarities between the characteristics of the cells in the dish and the human disease.”

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)


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An inside look reveals the adult brain prunes its own branches

Did you know that when you’re born, your brain contains around 100 billion nerve cells? This is impressive considering that these nerve cells, also called neurons, are already connected to each other through an intricate, complex neural network that is essential for brain function.

Here’s how the brain does it. During development, neural stem cells produce neurons that navigate their way through the brain. Once at their destination, neurons set up shop and send out long extensions called axons and branched extensions called dendrites that allow them to form what are called synaptic connections through which they can communicate through electrical and chemical signals.

Studies of early brain development revealed that neurons in the developing brain go on overdrive and make more synaptic connections than they need. Between birth and early adulthood, the brain carefully prunes away weak or unnecessary connections, and by your mid-twenties, your brain has eliminated almost half of the synaptic connections you started out with as a baby.

This synaptic pruning process allows the brain to fine-tune its neural network and strengthen the connections between neurons that are important for brain function. It’s similar to how a gardener prunes away excess branches on fruit trees so that the resulting branches can produce healthier and better tasting fruit.

The brain can make new neurons

It was thought that by adulthood, this process of pruning excess connections between neurons was over. However, a new study from the Salk Institute offers visual proof that synaptic pruning occurs during adulthood similarly to how it does during development. The work was published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, and it was funded in part by CIRM.

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

Rusty Gage, Salk Institute.

The study was led by senior author and Salk Professor Rusty Gage. Gage is well known for his earlier work on adult neurogenesis. In the late 90’s, he discovered that the adult brain can in fact make new neurons, a notion that overturned the central dogma that the brain doesn’t contain stem cells and that we’re born with all the neurons we will ever have.

There are two main areas of the adult brain that harbor neural stem cells that can generate new neurons. One area is called the dentate gyrus, which is located in the memory forming area of the brain called the hippocampus. Gage and his team were curious to know whether the new neurons generated from stem cells in the dentate gyrus also experienced the same synaptic overgrowth and pruning that the neurons in the developing brain did.

Pruning the Adult Brain

They developed a special microscope technique that allowed them to visually image the development of new neurons from stem cells in the dentate gyrus of the mouse brain. Every day, they would image the growing neurons and monitor how many dendritic branches they sent out.

Newly generated neurons (green) send out branched dendritic extensions to make connections with other neurons. (Image credit: Salk Institute)

Newly generated neurons (green) send out branched dendritic extensions to make connections with other neurons. (Image credit: Salk Institute)

After observing the neurons for a few weeks, they were amazed to discover that these new neurons behaved similarly to neurons in the developing brain. They sent out dozens of dendritic branches and formed synaptic connections with other neurons, some of which were eventually pruned away over time.

This phenomenon was observed more readily when they made the mice exercise, which stimulated the stem cells in the dentate gyrus to divide and produce more neurons. These exercise-induced neurons robustly sent out dendritic branches only to have them pruned back later.

First author on the paper, Tiago Gonçalves commented on their observations:

“What was really surprising was that the cells that initially grew faster and became bigger were pruned back so that, in the end, they resembled all the other cells.”

Rusty Gage was also surprised by their findings but explained that developing neurons, no matter if they are in the developing or adult brain, have evolved this process in order to establish the best connections.

“We were surprised by the extent of the pruning we saw. The results suggest that there is significant biological pressure to maintain or retain the dendrite tree of these neurons.”

A diagram showing how the adult brain prunes back the dendritic branches of newly developing neurons over time. (Image credit: Salk Institute).

A diagram showing how the adult brain prunes back the dendritic branches of newly developing neurons over time. (Image credit: Salk Institute).

Potential new insights into brain disorders

This study is important because it increases our understanding of how neurons develop in the adult brain. Such knowledge can help scientists gain a better understanding of what goes wrong in brain disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and epilepsy, where defects in how neurons form synaptic connections or how these connections are pruned are to blame.

Gonçalves also mentioned that this study raises another important question related to the regenerative medicine applications of stem cells for neurological disease.

“This also has big repercussions for regenerative medicine. Could we replace cells in this area of the brain with new stem cells and would they develop in the same way? We don’t know yet.”


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