Stem Cell Profiles in Courage: Brenden Whittaker

brenden-and-dog

Brenden Whittaker: Photo Colin McGuire

It’s not often you meet someone who says one of their favorite things in the world is mowing the lawn. But then, there aren’t many people in the world like Brenden Whittaker. In fact, as of this writing, he may be unique.

Brenden was born with severe chronic granulomatous disease (x-CGD), a rare genetic disorder that left him with an impaired immune system that was vulnerable to repeated bacterial and fungal infections. Over 22 years Brenden was in and out of the hospital hundreds of times, he almost died a couple of times, and lost parts of his lungs and liver.

Then he became the first person to take part in a clinical trial to treat x-CGD. UCLA researcher Don Kohn had developed a technique that removed Brenden’s blood stem cells, genetically re-engineered them to correct the mutation that caused the disease, and then returned those stem cells to Brenden. Over time they created a new blood system, and restored Brenden’s immune system.

He was cured.

We profiled Brenden for our 2016 Annual Report. Here’s an extended version of the interview we did with him, talking about his life before and after he was cured.

brenden_stories_of_hope

Brenden with a CIRM Game Ball – signed by everyone at CIRM

Brenden’s story:

I still think about it, my disease, every few days or so and it’s weird because in the past I was sick so often; before this year, I was sick consistently for about 5 years and going to doctor’s appointments 2 or 3 times a week and being in the hospital. So, it’s weird having a cough and not having to be rushed to the ER, not having to call someone every time the smallest thing pops up, and not having to worry about what it means.

It’s been good but it’s been weird to not have to do that.  It’s a nice problem to have.

What are you doing now that you didn’t do before?

Cutting the grass is something I couldn’t do before, that I’ve taken up now. Most people look at me as if I’m crazy when I say it, but I love cutting grass, and I wasn’t able to do it for 22 years of my life.

People will complain about having to pick up after their dog goes to the bathroom and now I can follow my dog outside and can pick up after her. It really is just the little things that people don’t think of. I find enjoyment in the small things, things I couldn’t do before but now I can and not have to worry about them.

The future

I was in the boy scouts growing up so I love camping, building fires, just being outdoors. I hiked on the Appalachian Trail. Now I’ll be able to do more of that.

I have a part time job at a golf course and I’m actually getting ready to go back to school full time in January. I want to get into pre-med, go to medical school and become a doctor. All the experience I’ve had has just made me more interested in being a doctor, I just want to be in a position where I can help people going through similar things, and going through all this just made me more interested in it.

Before the last few months I couldn’t schedule my work more than a week in advance because I didn’t know if I was going to be in the hospital or what was going on. Now my boss jokes that I’m giving him plans for the next month or two. It’s amazing how far ahead you can plan when you aren’t worried about being sick or having to go to the hospital.

I’d love to do some traveling. Right now most of my traveling consists of going to and from Boston (for medical check-ups), but I would love to go to Europe, go through France and Italy. That would be a real cool trip. I don’t need to see everything in the world but just going to other countries, seeing cities like London, Paris and Rome, seeing how people live in other cultures, that would be great.

Advice for others

I do think about the fact that when I was born one in a million kids were diagnosed with this disease and there weren’t any treatments. Many people only lived a few years. But to be diagnosed now you can have a normal life. That’s something all on its own. It’s almost impossible for me to fathom it’s happening, after all the years and doctor’s appointments and illnesses.

So, for people going through anything like this, I’d say just don’t give up. There are new advances being made every day and you have to keep fighting and keep getting through it, and some day it will all work out.


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What’s the big idea? Or in this case, what’s the 19 big ideas?

supermarket magazineHave you ever stood in line in a supermarket checkout line and browsed through the magazines stacked conveniently at eye level? (of course you have, we all have). They are always filled with attention-grabbing headlines like “5 Ways to a Slimmer You by Christmas” or “Ten Tips for Rock Hard Abs” (that one doesn’t work by the way).

So with those headlines in mind I was tempted to headline our latest Board meeting as: “19 Big Stem Cell Ideas That Could Change Your Life!”. And in truth, some of them might.

The Board voted to invest more than $4 million in funding for 19 big ideas as part of CIRM’s Discovery Inception program. The goal of Inception is to provide seed funding for great, early-stage ideas that may impact the field of human stem cell research but need a little support to test if they work. If they do work out, the money will also enable the researchers to gather the data they’ll need to apply for larger funding opportunities, from CIRM and other institutions, in the future

The applicants were told they didn’t have to have any data to support their belief that the idea would work, but they did have to have a strong scientific rational for why it might

As our President and CEO Randy Mills said in a news release, this is a program that encourages innovative ideas.

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

Randy Mills, CIRM President & CEO

“This is a program supporting early stage ideas that have the potential to be ground breaking. We asked scientists to pitch us their best new ideas, things they want to test but that are hard to get funding for. We know not all of these will pan out, but those that do succeed have the potential to advance our understanding of stem cells and hopefully lead to treatments in the future.”

So what are some of these “big” ideas? (Here’s where you can find the full list of those approved for funding and descriptions of what they involve). But here are some highlights.

Alysson Muotri at UC San Diego has identified some anti-retroviral drugs – already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – that could help stop inflammation in the brain. This kind of inflammation is an important component in several diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis. Alysson wants to find out why and how these drugs helps reduce inflammation and how it works. If he is successful it is possible that patients suffering from brain inflammation could immediately benefit from some already available anti-retroviral drugs.

Stanley Carmichael at UC Los Angeles wants to use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – these are adult cells that have been genetically re-programmed so they are capable of becoming any cell in the body – to see if they can help repair the damage caused by a stroke. With stroke the leading cause of adult disability in the US, there is clearly a big need for this kind of big idea.

Holger Willenbring at UC San Francisco wants to use stem cells to create a kind of mini liver, one that can help patients whose own liver is being destroyed by disease. The mini livers could, theoretically, help stabilize a person’s own liver function until a transplant donor becomes available or even help them avoid the need for liver transplantation in the first place. Considering that every year, one in five patients on the US transplant waiting list will die or become too sick for transplantation, this kind of research could have enormous life-saving implications.

We know not all of these ideas will work out. But all of them will help deepen our understanding of how stem cells work and what they can, and can’t, do. Even the best ideas start out small. Our funding gives them a chance to become something truly big.


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New developments in prostate cancer from UCLA

Today we’re bringing you a research update from a CIRM-funded team at UCLA that’s dedicated to finding a cure for prostate cancer. The team is led by Dr. Owen Witte, the director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center and a Howard Hughes Investigator. Dr. Witte is well known for his work in leukemia and epithelial cancer stem cells. His interests have also expanded into prostate cancer and identifying new therapeutic targets for the most aggressive types of prostate tumors.

His team’s latest efforts, which were published in Cancer Cell last week, have unearthed a possible target for late-stage neuroendocrine prostate cancer treatment. This is a particularly nasty form of prostate cancer that is resistant to standard cancer treatments and is the cause of approximately a quarter of prostate cancer related deaths.

Myc-ing prostate cells cancerous

To study how neuroendocrine prostate cancer (NEPC) develops into uncontrollable tumors, Witte and his team developed a novel human stem cell model. They knew that patients with NEPC had abnormally high levels of a protein called N-Myc in their tumors. Witte had a hunch that maybe N-Myc was the “bad guy” that was transforming normal human prostate cells into deadly, aggressive cancer cells. So the team went on an adventure to find some answers.

Normal prostate cells (left) and neuroendocrine prostate cancer cells (right). (UCLA news release)

Normal prostate cells (left) and neuroendocrine prostate cancer cells (right). (UCLA news release)

They took normal human prostate cells from healthy donors and added the MYCN gene which then produced large amounts of N-Myc protein. After receiving an N-Myc boost, the normal basal cells developed into aggressive tumor cells. When these transformed cells were transplanted into mice, they generated NEPC tumors.

Naturally, Witte didn’t stop there. He was interested in understanding what was going on at the cellular level to transform normal prostate cells into cancer. Witte explained in a UCLA press release:

“Identifying the cellular changes that happen in cancer cells is key to the development of drugs that inhibit those changes and thereby stop the progression of the disease.”

 

Finding drugs that target prostate cancer

Further experiments revealed that N-Myc was required for maintaining the deadly nature of the NEPC tumors. If N-Myc expression was disrupted, then the tumors in the mice actually shrank. After establishing N-Myc as a therapeutic target, they went on a hunt for drugs that could block its tumor amplifying activity.

They tested a drug that originally was designed to treat childhood brain cancers that also had an N-Myc related cause. The drug, CD532, acts on a protein called Aurora A kinase. The kinase physically interacts with N-Myc and is required to keep N-Myc stable and able to do its job. When mice with NEPC tumors were treated with CD532, the effects were dramatic – their tumors shrank by as much as 80%.

Witte believes that some of the cellular mechanisms behind the growth of different cancers are conserved. He explained,

Owen Witte and first author John Lee (UCLA).

Owen Witte and first author John Lee (UCLA).

“Kinase activity is known to be implicated in many types of cancers, including chronic myelogenous leukemia, which is no longer fatal for many people due to the success of Gleevec. I believe we can accomplish this same result for people with neuroendocrine prostate cancer.”

According to Witte, the next chapter in this story will be to find other drugs that can treat NEPC possibly by targeting N-Myc. Testing CD532 in clinical trials is also an option. Thus far, the drug has only been tested in preclinical experiments and hasn’t progressed into clinical trials for safety and efficacy testing in humans.


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Patients are the Heroes at the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Symposium

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UCSD’s Catriona Jamieson and patient advocate Sandra Dillon at the CIRM Alpha Clinic Network Symposium

Sometimes, when you take a moment to stand back and look at what you have accomplished, you can surprise yourself at how far you have come, and how much you have done in a short space of time.

Take the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network for example. In the 18 months since our Board invested $24 million to kick start the first three Alpha Clinics the Network has signed up 21 clinical trials. That’s no small achievement. But as far as the Alpha Clinics Network team is concerned, that’s just a start.

Alpha clinic table

Last week UC San Diego hosted the Second Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. The gathering of scientists, medical staff and patient advocates spent a little time talking about the past, about what has been achieved so far, but most of the time was devoted to looking to the future, planning where they want to go and how they are going to get there.

The Network’s goal is to now dramatically increase the number of high quality stem cell clinical trials it is running, to make it even easier for companies and researchers looking for a site to carry out their trial, and to make it even easier for patients looking to sign up for one.

Alpha clinic panel

Panel at symposium: L to R: David Higgins, CIRM Board; David Parry, GSK; Catriona Jamieson, UCSD: John Zaia, City of Hope; John Adams, UCLA

For companies, the lure of having three Alpha Clinics (UC San Diego, City of Hope and the combined team of UCLA/UC Irvine) packed with skilled, experienced staff that specialize in delivering stem cell therapies is a big draw. (By the way, if you know anyone looking for funding for a clinical trial send them here).

The Alpha Clinic teams not only know how to deliver the therapies, they also know how to deliver patients. They spend a lot of time working with patients and patient advocates on the best ways to recruit people for trials, and the best way to design those trials so that they are as easy as possible for patients to take part in.

This attention to making it as good an experience for patients as possible starts from the very first time that a patient calls the clinics to find out if they are eligible for a trial. If there is no trial that is appropriate for that particular patient, the staff try to find an alternative trial at another location that might work.

Making sure it’s a good fit

If the Network does have a trial that meets the needs of the patient, then they begin the conversation to find out if the patient is eligible to apply. The goal of this part of the process is not simply to try and fill up available slots but to make sure that the patient is both a good match for the proposed therapy and that they also completely understand what’s involved in getting that therapy. For example, they need to understand if the trial involves staying overnight or several nights in the hospital, or if there are things they need to do ahead of time to prepare.

For the clinics themselves, one of the biggest challenges is insurance coverage. While the trial itself may be free, the patient may need to have some tests ahead of the treatment, to make sure they don’t have any underlying problems that could put their health at risk. The clinics need to know if the patient’s insurance will cover the cost of those tests and if they don’t what their options are. For a rare disease, where it’s challenging to find enough patients to produce meaningful results, these kinds of problems can jeopardize the whole trial.

The Alpha Clinics Network is working hard to develop answers to all of those problems, to create systems that make it as easy as possible to get a clinical trial up and running, and to recruit and keep patients in that trial.

Challenges to overcome

Part of the challenge is that many of these trials are for first-in-human therapies, meaning no one has ever tried this in a person before. That means the doctors, nurses and all the support staff in these clinics need to be specially trained in dealing with an entirely new way of treating people, with an entirely new class of therapies. And this isn’t just about technical skills. They also need to be good at communication, helping the patients understand everything that is happening or about to happen.

In a state like California, one of the most diverse places on earth, that’s no easy challenge. According to a UCLA study there are more than 220 languages spoken in LA County alone. Coping with that level of linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity is a challenge that the Alpha Clinics are working hard to meet.

Listening to patients

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Patient advocates were also an important voice at the symposium, talking about their experiences in clinical trials and how they have helped change their lives, and how they have, in some cases, saved their lives. But they also had some thoughts on how the researchers can do an even better job. That is the subject for a future blog.

While everyone acknowledged the challenges the CIRM Alpha Clinics face, they also celebrated what they have accomplished so far, and looked forward to the future. And the symposium was a chance to remind all of us that the reason we are in this is to help patients battling deadly diseases and disorders. So it was fitting that Thomas Kipps, the Deputy Director of Research at the UCSD Moore’s Cancer Center, took the opportunity to thank those who are not just the focus of this work, but also the heroes.

Kipps

Thomas Kipps: Photo courtesy Patient Power

“Clinical trials involve a very important skill set. You have to first and foremost put the patient first in any clinical trial. I think we cannot ignore the fact that these are human beings that are brave souls that have gone forward. These are the heroes who are going out and forging new territory.”

Rare disease underdogs come out on top at CIRM Board meeting

 

It seems like an oxymoron but one in ten Americans has a rare disease. With more than 7,000 known rare diseases it’s easy to see how each one could affect thousands of individuals and still be considered a rare or orphan condition.

Only 5% of rare diseases have FDA approved therapies

rare disease

(Source: Sermo)

People with rare diseases, and their families, consider themselves the underdogs of the medical world because they often have difficulty getting a proper diagnosis (most physicians have never come across many of these diseases and so don’t know how to identify them), and even when they do get a diagnosis they have limited treatment options, and those options they do have are often very expensive.  It’s no wonder these patients and their families feel isolated and alone.

Rare diseases affect more people than HIV and Cancer combined

Hopefully some will feel less isolated after yesterday’s CIRM Board meeting when several rare diseases were among the big winners, getting funding to tackle conditions such as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or SCID, Canavan disease, Tay-Sachs and Sandhoff disease. These all won awards under our Translation Research Program except for the SCID program which is a pre-clinical stage project.

As CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas said in our news release, these awards have one purpose:

“The goal of our Translation program is to support the most promising stem cell-based projects and to help them accelerate that research out of the lab and into the real world, such as a clinical trial where they can be tested in people. The projects that our Board approved today are a great example of work that takes innovative approaches to developing new therapies for a wide variety of diseases.”

These awards are all for early-stage research projects, ones we hope will be successful and eventually move into clinical trials. One project approved yesterday is already in a clinical trial. Capricor Therapeutics was awarded $3.4 million to complete a combined Phase 1/2 clinical trial treating heart failure associated with Duchenne muscular dystrophy with its cardiosphere stem cell technology.  This same Capricor technology is being used in an ongoing CIRM-funded trial which aims to heal the scarring that occurs after a heart attack.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a genetic disorder that is marked by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. The symptoms usually start in early childhood, between ages 3 and 5, and the vast majority of cases are in boys. As the disease progresses it leads to heart failure, which typically leads to death before age 40.

The Capricor clinical trial hopes to treat that aspect of DMD, one that currently has no effective treatment.

As our President and CEO Randy Mills said in our news release:

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

“There can be nothing worse than for a parent to watch their child slowly lose a fight against a deadly disease. Many of the programs we are funding today are focused on helping find treatments for diseases that affect children, often in infancy. Because many of these diseases are rare there are limited treatment options for them, which makes it all the more important for CIRM to focus on targeting these unmet medical needs.”

Speaking on Rare Disease Day (you can read our blog about that here) Massachusetts Senator Karen Spilka said that “Rare diseases impact over 30 Million patients and caregivers in the United States alone.”

Hopefully the steps that the CIRM Board took yesterday will ultimately help ease the struggles of some of those families.

Regenerating damaged muscle after a heart attack

Cardio cells image

Images of clusters of heart muscle cells (in red and green) derived from human embryonic stem cells 40 days after transplantation. Courtesy UCLA

Every year more than 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Many of those who survive often have lasting damage to their heart muscle and are at increased risk for future attacks and heart failure. Now CIRM-funded researchers at UCLA have identified a way that could help regenerate heart muscle after a heart attack, potentially not only saving lives but also increasing the quality of life.

The researchers used human embryonic stem cells to create a kind of cell, called a cardiac mesoderm cell, which has the ability to turn into cardiomyocytes, fibroblasts, smooth muscle, and endothelial cells. All these types of cells play an important role in helping repair a damaged heart.

As those embryonic cells were in the process of changing into cardiac mesoderms, the team was able to identify two key markers on the cell surface. The markers, called CD13 and ROR2 – which makes them sound like extras in the latest Star Wars movie – pinpointed the cells that were likely to be the most efficient at changing into the kind of cells needed to repair damaged heart tissue.

The researchers then transplanted those cells into an animal model and found that not only did many of the cells survive but they also produced the cells needed to regenerate heart muscle and vessels.

Big step forward

The research was published in the journal Stem Cell Reports. Dr. Reza Ardehali, the senior author of the CIRM-funded study, says this is a big step forward in the use of embryonic stem cells to help treat heart attacks:

“In a major heart attack, a person loses an estimated 1 billion heart cells, which results in permanent scar tissue in the heart muscle. Our findings seek to unlock some of the mysteries of heart regeneration in order to move the possibility of cardiovascular cell therapies forward. We have now found a way to identify the right type of stem cells that create heart cells that successfully engraft when transplanted and generate muscle tissue in the heart, which means we’re one step closer to developing cell-based therapies for people living with heart disease.”

More good news

But wait, as they say in cheesy TV infomercials, there’s more. Ardehali and his team not only found the markers to help them identify the right kinds of cell to use in regenerating damaged heart muscle, they also found a way to track the transplanted cells so they could make sure they were going where they wanted them to, and doing what they needed them to.

In a study published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine,  Ardehali and his team used special particles that can be tracked using MRI. They used those particles to label the cardiac mesoderm cells. Once transplanted into the animal model the team was able to follow the cells for up to 40 days.

Ardehali says knowing how to identify the best cells to repair a damaged heart, and then being able to track them over a long period, gives us valuable tools to use as we work to develop better, more effective treatments for people who have had a heart attack.

CIRM is already funding a Phase 2 clinical trial, run by a company called Capricor, using stem cells to treat heart attack patients.

 

UCLA Scientists Find 3000 New Genes in “Junk DNA” of Immune Stem Cells

Genes and Junk

Do you remember learning about Junk DNA when you took Biology in high school? The term was used to described 98% of the human genome that doesn’t make up its approximately 22,000 genes. We used to think that Junk DNA didn’t serve a purpose, but that was before we discovered special elements called non-coding RNAs that call Junk DNA their home. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s take a step back.

Genes are sequences of DNA that contain the blueprints for the proteins that make your cells and organs function. Before a gene can become a protein, its transformed into a molecule called an RNA. RNAs contain messages that tell a cell’s machinery what types of protein to make and how many.

Not Junk After All

Now back to “Junk DNA”… scientists thought that because this mass of DNA sequences was never turned into protein, it served no purpose. It turns out that they couldn’t be farther from the facts.

There are actually sequences of DNA in our genomes that are blueprints for RNAs that never become proteins. Scientists call them “non-coding” RNAs, and they play very important roles in the body such as replicating DNA and regulating gene expression – deciding which genes are turned on and which are turned off.

Another important function that non-coding RNAs control is cell differentiation, or the maturation of immature cells into adult cells. Differentiation is a complicated process, and because non-coding RNAs are relatively new to the scientific world, we haven’t figured out their exact roles in the differentiation of stem cells into adult cells.

Understanding Immune Cell Development

In a study published this week in Nature Immunology, UCLA scientists reported the discovery of 3000 new genes that make a type of non-coding RNA called a long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) that regulates the differentiation of stem cells into mature immune cells like B and T cells, which play a key role in fighting infection. This important study was funded in part by CIRM.

UCLA scientists David Casero and Gay Crooks with the sequencing machine that separated the genetic information within the bone marrow and thymus gland tissue stem cells. (Image credit: Mirabai Vogt-James, UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

UCLA scientists David Casero and Gay Crooks with the sequencing machine used to identify the 3000 new genes. (Image credit: Mirabai Vogt-James, UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

Using sequencing technology and bioinformatics, they mapped the RNA landscape (known as the transcriptome) of rare stem cells isolated from human bone marrow (hematopoietic stem cells) and the thymus (lymphoid progenitor cells). They identified over 9000 genes that produced lncRNAs that were important for moderating various stages of immune cell development. Of this number, over 3000 were genes whose lncRNAs hadn’t been found before.

First author, David Casero explained the importance of their discovery in a UCLA press release:

Our findings are exciting because they provide a huge and unique resource for the whole immunology community. We will now be able to drill down on the specific LncRNA genes that seem to be most important at each stage of immune cell development and understand how they function individually and together to control the process.

 

Co-senior author and UCLA professor Gay Crooks explained that the goal of their work was to gain a better understanding of how the immune system develops in order to battle serious diseases that affect it and open up avenues for generating better cell therapies.

If we can understand how the immune system is generated and maintained during life, we can find ways to improve production of immune cells for potential therapies after chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplant, or for patients with HIV and inherited immune deficiencies. In addition, by understanding the genes that control this process we can better understand how they are changed in cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.

 

Final Words

While this study focused on the role of lncRNAs in the development of the immune system and the differentiation of immune stem cells, the technology in this study can be used to understand the development of other systems and organs.

Scientists are already publishing papers on the role of lncRNAs in the differentiation of stem cells in the brain and heart, and further work in this field will undoubtedly uncover many new and important lncRNA genes. If the pace keeps up, the term “Junk DNA” will need to be retired to the junk yard.

junk-dna-series2

Image source www.biocomicals.com


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Stem cells and prostate cancer are more similar than we thought

Prostate cancer is a scary word for men, no matter how macho or healthy they are. These days however, prostate cancer is no longer a death sentence for them. In fact, many men survive this disease if diagnosed early. However, for those unlucky ones who have more advanced stages of prostate cancer (where the tumor has metastasized and spread to other organs), the typical treatments used to fight the tumors don’t work effectively because advanced tumors become resistant to these therapies.

To help those afflicted with late stage prostate cancer, scientists are trying to understand the nature of prostate cancer cells and what makes them so “deadly”. By understanding the biology behind these tumor cells, they hope to develop better therapies to treat the late-stage forms of this disease.

UCLA scientists Bryan Smith and Owen Witte. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

UCLA scientists Bryan Smith and Owen Witte. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

But don’t worry, help is already on its way. Two groups from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Santa Cruz published a breakthrough discovery yesterday on the similarity between prostate cancer cells and prostate stem cells. The study was published in the journal PNAS and was led by senior author and director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, Dr. Owen Witte.

Using bioinformatics, Witte and his team compared the gene expression profiles of late-stage, metastatic prostate cancer cells sourced from tumor biopsies of living patients to healthy cell types in the male prostate. Epithelial cells are one of the main cell types in the prostate (they form the prostate glands) and they come in two forms: basal and luminal. When they compared the gene expression profiles of the prostate cancer cells to healthy prostate epithelial cells, they found that the cancer cells had a similar profile to normal prostate epithelial basal stem cells.

Image of a prostate cancer tumor. Green and red represent different stem cell traits and the yellow areas show where two stem cell traits are expressed together. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

Image of a prostate cancer tumor. Green and red represent different stem cell traits and the yellow areas show where two stem cell traits are expressed together. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

In fact, they discovered a 91-gene signature specific to the basal stem cells in the prostate. This profile included genes important for stem cell signaling and invasiveness. That meant that the metastatic prostate cancer cells also expressed “stem-like” genes.

First author Bryan Smith explained how their results support similar findings for other types of cancers. “Evidence from cancer research suggests that aggressive cancers have stem–cell-like traits. We now know this to be true for the most aggressive form of prostate cancer.”

So what does this study mean for prostate cancer patients? I’ll let Dr. Witte answer this one…

Treatments for early stage prostate cancer are often successful, but therapies that target the more aggressive and late-stage forms of the disease are urgently needed. I believe this research gives us important insight into the cellular nature of aggressive prostate cancer. Pinpointing the cellular traits of cancer — what makes those cells grow and spread — is crucial because then we can possibly target those traits to reverse or stop cancer’s progression. Our findings will inform our work as we strive to find treatments for aggressive prostate cancer.


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CIRM scholar Ke Wei talks heart regeneration

Ke Wei

Ke Wei

“How do you mend a broken heart?” was the topic of one of our recent Stem Cellar blogs highlighting a stellar CIRM-funded publication on the regenerative abilities of the protein FSTL1 following heart injury. One of the master-minds behind this study is co-first author Ke Wei. Ke is a postdoc in Dr. Mark Mercola’s lab at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute located in balmy southern California. He also happens to be one of our prized CIRM scholars.

KeWeipatch

Cross sections of a healthy (control) or injured mouse heart. Injured hearts treated with patches containing FSTL1 show the most recovery of healthy heart tissue (red). Image adapted from Wei et al. 2015)

Upon hearing of Ke’s important and exciting accomplishments in the field of regenerative medicine for heart disease, we called him up to learn more about his scientific accomplishments and aspirations.

Q: Tell us about your research background and how you got into this field?

KW: I went to UCLA for my graduate school PhD, and I studied under Dr. Fabian Chen focusing on heart development. At that time, I mainly worked on very early heart development and other tissues like smooth muscle cells. For my graduate thesis work, I found that particular genes were important for smooth muscle development.

So I was trained as a heart developmental biologist, but after my PhD, I came to the Burnham Institute and I joined two labs: Dr. Mark Mercola and Dr. Pilar Ruiz-Lozano. They co-mentored me for the first couple of years of my postdoc. Mark is interested in using stem cells and high throughput screens to identify pharmaceutical compounds for inducing heart regeneration and treating heart diseases. Pilar is interested in the epicardium, the outer layer of the heart, which is known to play important roles during heart development. When I joined their labs, they had combined forces to study how the epicardium affects heart development and heart diseases.

In their labs, I used my developmental biologist background to combine in vitro stem cells based screening studies (Mark) and in vivo mouse embryonic heart development studies (Pilar) to dissect the function of the epicardium on heart development and disease.

Q: Tell us about your experience as a CIRM scholar and what you were able to accomplish.

KW: My two years of CIRM fellowship were separated but my focus was the same for both CIRM-funded periods: to understand the effect of the epicardium on heart development and diseases.

In my first project in 2008, we tried to generate an in vitro model of mouse epicardial cells and used those cells to study their influence on cardiac differentiation using both in vitro and in vivo experiments. We ran into a lot of technical difficulties, so at that time, we decided to switch to using existing in vitro epicardial cell lines, and using those to study their influence on cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells).

In my second year of CIRM funding in 2011, we identified the genes and proteins that can promote immature cardiomyocytes to proliferate, and put them in vivo and it worked. So the success of our publication all started from my second year of CIRM-fellowship.

Q: What benefits did you experience as a CIRM scholar?

KW: I’ve really enjoyed being a CIRM scholar and took advantage of the resources they provided me over the years. One of the benefits I enjoyed the most was attending the CIRM annual meetings and retreats. I was able to talk with a lot of scientists with different backgrounds, and that really expanded my horizons.

As you can see from our paper in Nature, it’s definitely not only a developmental biologist paper. It’s actually very clinical and collaborative, and it was done by many different groups working together. By going to CIRM conferences and meeting all the other CIRM fellows, I got a lot of new ideas, and those ideas encouraged me to collaborate with more scientists. These events really encouraged me to look beyond the thoughts of a developmental biologist.

Our paper is co-authored by me and Vahid Serpooshan from Stanford. We co-first authored this paper, and my work mainly involved the in vitro studies that identified the regenerative proteins and their function in heart injury. Vahid’s approach was more bioengineering focused. He produced the FSTL1 patch, put it in the rodent heart, and conducted all the other in vivo studies. It was a perfect collaboration to push this project for publication in a high level journal like Nature.

Q: What is the big picture of your research and your future goals?

KW: I plan to stay in academia. The key thing about heart diseases is that heart regeneration is very limited. Using our approach, we found one particular protein that’s important to the regenerative process, and in reality, its concentration is very low in the heart when it’s infarcted (injured). I think we have set up a pretty good system to test all possible therapeutic means in the lab, including proteins from the epicardium, small molecules, microRNAs and other compounds to activate cardiomyocyte proliferation. I plan to focus on understanding the mechanisms for why cardiomyocytes stop proliferating in the adult heart, and what new approaches we can pursue to promote their expansion and regenerative abilities. The FSTL1 story is the start of this, and I will try to find new factors that can promote heart regeneration.

Q: Will your work involve human stem cell models?

KW: To make this study clinically relevant, we included the swine models. We are definitely testing FSTL1 in human cells right now. Currently we can produce a huge amount of the human cardiomyocytes. They seem to be at a different stage than rodent cells so we are optimizing the system to perform screens for human cell proliferation. When that system is set up, then anything that comes out of the screen will be much more relevant to clinical studies in humans.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

Knowing that the information I acquire through experiments is new to mankind, and that my actions expand the horizon of combined human knowledge, even just for a tiny bit, is a huge satisfaction to me as a scientist.

Protein Revs Up Bone Stem Cells; Points Toward Future Osteoporosis Drug

Take a moment to feel your arm and wrist bones. They’re a lot more like solid rock than the soft stretchy skin that covers them. But bone is very much a living tissue continually being broken down and built back up in a process called bone remodeling. In people with osteoporosis, this balance tips toward bone breakdown leading to more porous, fragile bones with increased risk of fractures. An estimated ten million people in the U.S. have osteoporosis accounting for 1.5 million fractures annually at a cost of $17 billion in medical care, not to mention the emotional toll of these often debilitating and even life threatening injuries.

Fluorescent imaging mouse spines. Treatment with NELL-1 (right) shows greater bone formation compared to untreated mice (left). Credit: Broad Stem Cell Research Center

Fluorescent imaging of mouse spines. Treatment with NELL-1 (right) shows greater bone formation compared to untreated mice (left). Credit: Broad Stem Cell Research Center

This week a CIRM-funded research team at UCLA reported in Nature Communications that injection of a human protein called NELL-1 into the blood of mice with osteoporosis-like symptoms tipped the balance back toward bone formation. In a large animal study, delivering NELL-1 directly into the spine also led to increased bone volume. In a university press release, co-senior author Kang Ting spoke of his hopes that these results open up a new therapeutic avenue for treating osteoporosis and other ailments:

“Our end goal is really to harness the bone forming properties of NELL-1 to better treat patients with diverse causes of bone loss, from trauma in military personnel to osteoporosis from age, disease or very weak gravity, which causes bone loss in astronauts.”

In petri dish experiments leading up to these animal results, the research team showed that NELL-1 acts by increasing the specialization of mesenchymal stem cells – a type of adult stem cell found in the bone marrow and fat – into osteoblasts, the cells responsible for building new bone. At the same time, NELL-1 reduced the generation of osteoclasts, the cells responsible for the breakdown, or resorption, of bone. This dual action of NELL-1 explains how it improved the osteoporosis-like symptoms in the animals. Check out this fascinating animation for a visual description of osteoblasts and osteoclasts:

Many of the other molecules that promote bone growth aren’t as efficient as NELL-1: while they increase osteoblast numbers they also increase osteoclasts to some extent. For example, Fosamax is a drug prescribed to women with osteoporosis to help build stronger bones but long-term use has been associated with even more brittle bones and fractures. So this finding with NELL-1 sets it apart and hints at fewer side effects as a therapeutic. Still, it’s known to play a role in brain, cartilage, and blood vessel development so careful studies of non-bone effects are needed as the team pursues a road to the clinic.

For more information about CIRM-funded projects related to osteoporosis, visit our online fact sheet.