How stem cells know the right way to make a heart . And what goes wrong when they don’t

Gladstone scientists Deepak Srivastava (left), Yvanka De Soysa (center), and Casey Gifford (right) publish a complete catalog of the cells involved in heart development.

The invention of GPS navigation systems has made finding your way around so much easier, providing simple instructions on how to get from point A to point B. Now, a new study shows that our bodies have their own internal navigation system that helps stem cells know where to go, and when, in order to build a human heart. And the study also shows what can go wrong when even a few cells fail to follow directions.

In this CIRM-supported study, a team of researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, used a new technique called single cell RNA sequencing to study what happens in a developing heart. Single cell RNA sequencing basically takes a snapshot photo of all the gene activity in a single cell at one precise moment. Using this the researchers were able to follow the activity of tens of thousands of cells as a human heart was being formed.

In a story in Science and Research Technology News, Casey Gifford, a senior author on the study, said this approach helps pinpoint genetic variants that might be causing problems.

“This sequencing technique allowed us to see all the different types of cells present at various stages of heart development and helped us identify which genes are activated and suppressed along the way. We were not only able to uncover the existence of unknown cell types, but we also gained a better understanding of the function and behavior of individual cells—information we could never access before.”

Then they partnered with a team at Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg which ran a computational analysis to identify which genes were involved in creating different cell types. This highlighted one specific gene, called Hand2, that controls the activity of thousands of other genes. They found that a lack of Hand2 in mice led to an inability to form one of the heart’s chambers, which in turn led to impaired blood flow to the lungs. The embryo was creating the cells needed to form the chamber, but not a critical pathway that would allow those cells to get where they were needed when they were needed.

Gifford says this has given us a deeper insight into how cells are formed, knowledge we didn’t have before.

“Single-cell technologies can inform us about how organs form in ways we couldn’t understand before and can provide the underlying cause of disease associated with genetic variations. We revealed subtle differences in very, very small subsets of cells that actually have catastrophic consequences and could easily have been overlooked in the past. This is the first step toward devising new therapies.”

These therapies are needed to help treat congenital heart defects, which are the most common and deadly birth defects. There are more than 2.5 million Americans with these defects. Deepak Srivastava, President of Gladstone and the leader of the study, said the knowledge gained in this study could help developed strategies to help address that.

“We’re beginning to see the long-term consequences in adults, and right now, we don’t really have any way to treat them. My hope is that if we can understand the genetic causes and the cell types affected, we could potentially intervene soon after birth to prevent the worsening of their state over time.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Organoids revolutionize approach to studying a variety of diseases

Organoids

There are limitations to studying cells under a microscope. To understand some of the more complex processes, it is critical to see how these cells behave in an environment that is similar to conditions in the body. The production of organoids has revolutionized this approach.

Organoids are three-dimensional structures derived from stem cells that have similar characteristics of an actual organ. There have been several studies recently published that have used this approach to understand a wide scope of different areas.

In one such instance, researchers at The University of Cambridge were able to grow a “mini-brain” from human stem cells. To demonstrate that this organoid had functional capabilities similar to that of an actual brain, the researchers hooked it up to a mouse spinal cord and surrounding muscle. What they found was remarkable– the “mini-brain” sent electrial signals to the spinal cord that made the surrounding muscles twitch. This model could pave the way for studying neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Spinal muscular atrophy

Speaking of SMA, researchers in Singapore have used organoids to come up with some findings that might be able to help people battling the condition.

SMA is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a protein deficiency that results in nerve degeneration, paralysis and even premature death. The fact that it mainly affects children makes it even worse. Not much is known how SMA develops and even less how to treat or prevent it.

That’s where the research from the A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) comes in. Using the iPSC method they turned tissue samples from healthy people and people with SMA into spinal organoids.

They then compared the way the cells developed in the organoids and found that the motor nerve cells from healthy people were fully formed by day 35. However, the cells from people with SMA started to degenerate before they got to that point.

They also found that the protein problem that causes SMA to develop did so by causing the motor nerve cells to divide, something they don’t normally do. So, by blocking the mechanism that caused the cells to divide they were able to prevent the cells from dying.

In an article in Science and Technology Research News lead researcher Shi-Yan Ng said this approach could help unlock clues to other diseases such as ALS.

“We are one of the first labs to report the formation of spinal organoids. Our study presents a new method for culturing human spinal-cord-like tissues that could be crucial for future research.”

Just yesterday the CIRM Board awarded almost $4 million to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics to try and develop a treatment for another debilitating back problem called degenerative spondylolisthesis.

And finally, organoid modeling was used to better understand and study an infectious disease. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin created fallopian tube organoids from normal human cells. Fallopian tubes are the pair of tubes found inside women along which the eggs travel from the ovaries to the uterus. The scientists observed the effects of chronic infections of Chlamydia, a sexually transmittable infection. It was discovered that chronic infections lead to permanent changes at the DNA level as the cells age. These changes to DNA are permanent even after the infection is cleared, and could be indicative of the increased risk of cervical cancer observed in women with Chlamydia or those that have contracted it in the past.