Boosting the blood system after life-saving therapy

Following radiation, the bone marrow shows nearly complete loss of blood cells in mice (left). Mice treated with the PTP-sigma inhibitor displayed rapid recovery of blood cells (purple, right): Photo Courtesy UCLA

Chemotherapy and radiation are two of the front-line weapons in treating cancer. They can be effective, even life-saving, but they can also be brutal, taking a toll on the body that lasts for months. Now a team at UCLA has developed a therapy that might enable the body to bounce back faster after chemo and radiation, and even make treatments like bone marrow transplants easier on patients.

First a little background. Some cancer treatments use chemotherapy and radiation to kill the cancer, but they can also damage other cells, including those in the bone marrow responsible for making blood stem cells. Those cells eventually recover but it can take weeks or months, and during that time the patient may feel fatigue and be more susceptible to infections and other problems.

In a CIRM-supported study, UCLA’s Dr. John Chute and his team developed a drug that speeds up the process of regenerating a new blood supply. The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

They focused their attention on a protein called PTP-sigma that is found in blood stem cells and acts as a kind of brake on the regeneration of those cells. Previous studies by Dr. Chute showed that, after undergoing radiation, mice that have less PTP-sigma were able to regenerate their blood stem cells faster than mice that had normal levels of the protein.

John Chute: Photo courtesy UCLA

So they set out to identify something that could help reduce levels of PTP-sigma without affecting other cells. They first identified an organic compound with the charming name of 6545075 (Chembridge) that was reported to be effective against PTP-sigma. Then they searched a library of 80,000 different small molecules to find something similar to 6545075 (and this is why science takes so long).

From that group they developed more than 100 different drug candidates to see which, if any, were effective against PTP-sigma. Finally, they found a promising candidate, called DJ009. In laboratory tests DJ009 proved itself effective in blocking PTP-sigma in human blood stem cells.

They then tested DJ009 in mice that were given high doses of radiation. In a news release Dr. Chute said the results were very encouraging:

“The potency of this compound in animal models was very high. It accelerated the recovery of blood stem cells, white blood cells and other components of the blood system necessary for survival. If found to be safe in humans, it could lessen infections and allow people to be discharged from the hospital earlier.”

Of the radiated mice, most that were given DJ009 survived. In comparison, those that didn’t get DJ009 died within three weeks.

They saw similar benefits in mice given chemotherapy. Mice with DJ009 saw their white blood cells – key components of the immune system – return to normal within two weeks. The untreated mice had dangerously low levels of those cells at the same point.

It’s encouraging work and the team are already getting ready for more research so they can validate their findings and hopefully take the next step towards testing this in people in clinical trials.

CIRM Board Approves Funding for New Clinical Trials in Solid Tumors and Pediatric Disease

Dr. Theodore Nowicki, physician in the division of pediatric hematology/oncology at UCLA. Photo courtesy of Milo Mitchell/UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded two grants totaling $11.15 million to carry out two new clinical trials.  These latest additions bring the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 53. 

$6.56 Million was awarded to Rocket Pharmaceuticals, Inc. to conduct a clinical trial for treatment of infants with Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency-I (LAD-I)

LAD-I is a rare pediatric disease caused a mutation in a specific gene that affects the body’s ability to combat infections.  As a result, infants with severe LAD-I are often affected immediately after birth. During infancy, they suffer from recurrent life-threatening bacterial and fungal infections that respond poorly to antibiotics and require frequent hospitalizations.  Those that survive infancy experience recurrent severe infections, with mortality rates for severe LAD-I at 60-75% prior to the age of two and survival very rare beyond the age of five.

Rocket Pharmaceuticals, Inc. will test a treatment that uses a patient’s own blood stem cells and inserts a functional version of the gene.  These modified stem cells are then reintroduced back into the patient that would give rise to functional immune cells, thereby enabling the body to combat infections.  

The award is in the form of a CLIN2 grant, with the goal of conducting a clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of this treatment in patients with LAD-I.

This project utilizes a gene therapy approach, similar to that of three other clinical trials funded by CIRM and conducted at UCLA by Dr. Don Kohn, for X-linked Chronic Granulomatous Disease, an inherited immune deficiency “bubble baby” disease known as ADA-SCID, and Sickle Cell Disease.

An additional $4.59 million was awarded to Dr. Theodore Nowicki at UCLA to conduct a clinical trial for treatment of patients with sarcomas and other advanced solid tumors. In 2018 alone, an estimated 13,040 people were diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma (STS) in the United States, with approximately 5,150 deaths.  Standard of care treatment for sarcomas typically consists of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but patients with late stage or recurring tumor growth have few options.

Dr. Nowicki and his team will genetically modify peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs) and peripheral blood monocular cells (PBMCs) to target these solid tumors. The gene modified stem cells, which have the ability to self-renew, provide the potential for a durable effect.

This award is also in the form of a CLIN2 grant, with the goal of conducting a clinical trial to assess the safety of this rare solid tumor treatment.

This project will add to CIRM’s portfolio in stem cell approaches for difficult to treat cancers.  A previously funded a clinical trial at UCLA uses this same approach to treat patients with multiple myeloma.  CIRM has also previously funded two clinical trials using different approaches to target other types of solid tumors, one of which was conducted at Stanford and the other at UCLA. Lastly, two additional CIRM funded trials conducted by City of Hope and Poseida Therapeutics, Inc. used modified T cells to treat brain cancer and multiple myeloma, respectively.

“CIRM has funded 23 clinical stage programs utilizing cell and gene medicine approaches” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM. “The addition of these two programs, one in immunodeficiency and the other for the treatment of malignancy, broaden the scope of unmet medical need we can impact with cell and gene therapeutic approaches.”

Stem Cell Roundup: Improving muscle function in muscular dystrophy; Building a better brain; Boosting efficiency in making iPSC’s

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

Photos of the week

TGIF! We’re so excited that the weekend is here that we are sharing not one but TWO amazing stem cell photos of the week.

RMI IntestinalChip

Image caption: Cells of a human intestinal lining, after being placed in an Intestine-Chip, form intestinal folds as they do in the human body. (Photo credit: Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute)

Photo #1 is borrowed from a blog we wrote earlier this week about a new stem cell-based path to personalized medicine. Scientists at Cedars-Sinai are collaborating with a company called Emulate to create intestines-on-a-chip using human stem cells. Their goal is to create 3D-organoids that represent the human gut, grow them on chips, and use these gut-chips to screen for precision medicines that could help patients with intestinal diseases. You can read more about this gut-tastic research here.

Young mouse heart 800x533

Image caption: UCLA scientists used four different fluorescent-colored proteins to determine the origin of cardiomyocytes in mice. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Nature Communications)

Photo #2 is another beautiful fluorescent image, this time of a cross-section of a mouse heart. CIRM-funded scientists from UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center are tracking the fate of stem cells in the developing mouse heart in hopes of finding new insights that could lead to stem cell-based therapies for heart attack victims. Their research was published this week in the journal Nature Communications and you can read more about it in a UCLA news release.

Stem cell injection improves muscle function in muscular dystrophy mice

Another study by CIRM-funded Cedars-Sinai scientists came out this week in Stem Cell Reports. They discovered that they could improve muscle function in mice with muscular dystrophy by injecting cardiac progenitor cells into their hearts. The injected cells not only improved heart function in these mice, but also improved muscle function throughout their bodies. The effects were due to the release of microscopic vesicles called exosomes by the injected cells. These cells are currently being used in a CIRM-funded clinical trial by Capricor therapeutics for patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

How to build a better brain (blob)

For years stem cell researchers have been looking for ways to create “mini brains”, to better understand how our own brains work and develop new ways to repair damage. So far, the best they have done is to create blobs, clusters of cells that resemble some parts of the brain. But now researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA have come up with a new method they think can advance the field.

Their approach is explained in a fascinating article in the journal Science News, where lead researcher Bennet Novitch says finding the right method is like being a chef:

“It’s like making a cake: You have many different ways in which you can do it. There are all sorts of little tricks that people have come up with to overcome some of the common challenges.”

Brain cake. Yum.

A more efficient way to make iPS cells

17yamanaka-master768

Shinya Yamanaka. (Image source: Ko Sasaki, New York Times)

In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka discovered a way to take ordinary adult cells and reprogram them into embryonic-like stem cells that have the ability to turn into any other cell in the body. He called these cells induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSC’s. Since then researchers have been using these iPSC’s to try and develop new treatments for deadly diseases.

There’s been a big problem, however. Making these cells is really tricky and current methods are really inefficient. Out of a batch of, say, 1,000 cells sometimes only one or two are turned into iPSCs. Obviously, this slows down the pace of research.

Now researchers in Colorado have found a way they say dramatically improves on that. The team says it has to do with controlling the precise levels of reprogramming factors and microRNA and…. Well, you can read how they did it in a news release on Eurekalert.

 

 

 

UCLA scientists on track to develop a stem cell replacement therapy for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

Muscle cells generated by April Pyle’s Lab at UCLA.

Last year, we wrote about a CIRM-funded team at UCLA that’s on a mission to develop a stem cell treatment for patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Today, we bring you an exciting update on this research just in time for the holidays (Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and Kwanza to our readers!).

DMD is a deadly muscle wasting disease that primarily affects young boys and young men. The UCLA team is trying to generate better methods for making skeletal muscle cells from pluripotent stem cells to regenerate the muscle tissue that is lost in patients with the condition. DMD is caused by genetic mutations in the dystrophin gene, which codes for a protein that is essential for skeletal muscle function. Without dystrophin protein, skeletal muscles become weak and waste away.

In their previous study, the UCLA team used CRISPR gene editing technology to remove dystrophin mutations in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) made from the skin cells of DMD patients. These corrected iPSCs were then matured into skeletal muscle cells that were transplanted into mice. The transplanted muscle cells successfully produced dystrophin protein – proving for the first time that DMD mutations can be corrected using human iPSCs.

A Step Forward

The team has advanced their research a step forward and published a method for making skeletal muscle cells, from DMD patient iPSCs, that look and function like real skeletal muscle tissue. Their findings, which were published today in the journal Nature Cell Biology, address a longstanding problem in the field: not being able to make stem cell-derived muscle cells that are mature enough to model DMD or to be used for cell replacement therapies.

Dr. April Pyle, senior author on the study and Associate Professor at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA explained in a news release:

April Pyle, UCLA.

“We have found that just because a skeletal muscle cell produced in the lab expresses muscle markers, doesn’t mean it is fully functional. For a stem cell therapy for Duchenne to move forward, we must have a better understanding of the cells we are generating from human pluripotent stem cells compared to the muscle stem cells found naturally in the human body and during the development process.”

By comparing the proteins expressed on the cell surface of human fetal and adult muscle cells, the team identified two proteins, ERBB3 and NGFR, that represented a regenerative population of skeletal muscle cells. They used these two markers to isolate these regenerative muscle cells, but found that the muscle fibers they created in a lab dish were smaller than those found in human muscle.

First author, Michael Hicks, discovered that using a drug to block a human developmental signaling pathway called TGF Beta pushed these ERBB3/NGFR cells past this intermediate stage and allowed them to mature into functional skeletal muscle cells similar to those found in human muscle.

Putting It All Together

In their final experiments, the team combined the new stem cell techniques developed in the current study with their previous work using CRISPR gene editing technology. First, they removed the dystrophin mutations in DMD patient iPSCs using CRISPR. Then, they coaxed the iPSCs into skeletal muscle cells in a dish and isolated the regenerative cells that expressed ERBB3 and NGFR. Mice that lacked the dystrophin protein were then transplanted with these cells and were simultaneously given an injection of a TGF Beta blocking drug.

The results were exciting. The transplanted cells were able to produce human dystrophin and restore the expression of this protein in the Duchenne mice.

Skeletal muscle cells isolated using the ERBB3 and NGFR surface markers (right) restore human dystrophin (green) after transplantation significantly greater than previous methods (left). (Image courtesy of UCLA)

Dr. Pyle concluded,

“The results were exactly what we’d hoped. This is the first study to demonstrate that functional muscle cells can be created in a laboratory and restore dystrophin in animal models of Duchenne using the human development process as a guide.”

In the long term, the UCLA team hopes to translate this research into a patient-specific stem cell therapy for DMD patients. In the meantime, the team will use funding from a recent CIRM Quest award to make skeletal muscle cells that can regenerate long-term in response to chronic injury in hopes of developing a more permanent treatment for DMD.

The UCLA study discussed in this blog received funding from Discovery stage CIRM awards, which you can read more about here and here.

UCLA scientists begin a journey to restore the sense of touch in paralyzed patients

Yesterday, CIRM-funded scientists at UCLA published an interesting study that sheds light on the development of sensory neurons, a type of nerve cell that is damaged in patients with spinal cord injury. Their early-stage findings could potentially, down the road, lead to the development of stem cell-based treatments that rebuild the sensory nervous system in paralyzed people that have lost their sense of touch.

Dr. Samantha Butler, a CIRM grantee and professor at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, led the study, which was published in the journal eLife.

Restoring sensation

Butler and her team were interested in understanding the basic development of sensory interneurons in the spinal cord. These are nerve cells in the spinal cord that receive sensory signals from the environment outside the body (like heat, pain and touch) and relay these signals to the brain where the senses are then perceived.

Developing spinal cord injury treatments often focus on the loss of movement caused by damage to the motor neurons in the spine that control our muscles. However, the damage caused to sensory neurons in the spine can be just as debilitating to people with paralysis. Without being able to feel whether a surface is hot or cold, paralyzed patients can sustain serious burn injuries.

Butler commented in a UCLA news release that attempting to restoring sensation in paralyzed patients is just as important as restoring movement:

Samantha Butler

“The understanding of sensory interneuron development has lagged far behind that of another class of neurons—called motor neurons—which control the body’s ability to move. This lack in understanding belies the importance of sensation: it is at the core of human experience. Some patients faced with the reality of paralysis place the recovery of the sense of touch above movement.”

BMPs are important for sensory neuron development

To restore sensation in paralyzed patients, scientists need to replace the sensory neurons that are damaged in the spine. To create these neurons, Butler looked to proteins involved in the early development of the spinal cord called bone morphogenetic proteins or BMPs.

BMPs are an important family of signaling proteins that influence development of the embryo. Their signaling can determine the fate or identity of cells including cells that make up the developing spinal cord.

It was previously thought that the concentration of BMPs determined what type of sensory neuron a stem cell would develop into, but Butler’s team found the opposite in their research. By studying developing chick embryos, they discovered that the type, not the concentration, of BMP matters when determining what subtype of sensory neuron is produced. Increasing the amount of a particular BMP in the chick spinal cord only produced more of the same type of sensory interneuron rather than creating a different type.

Increasing the concentration of a certain type of BMP increases the production of the same categories of sensory interneurons (red and green). (Image credit: UCLA)

The scientists confirmed these findings using mouse embryonic stem cells grown in the lab. Interestingly a different set of BMPs were responsible for deciding sensory neuron fate in the mouse stem cell model compared to the chick embryo. But the finding that different BMPs determine sensory neuron identity was consistent.

So what and what’s next?

While this research is still in its early stages, the findings are important because they offer a better understanding of sensory neuron development in the spinal cord. This research also hints at the potential for stem cell-based therapies that replace or restore the function of sensory neurons in paralyzed patients.

Madeline Andrews, the first author of the study, concluded:

“Central nervous system injuries and diseases are particularly devastating because the brain and spinal cord are unable to regenerate. Replacing damaged tissue with sensory interneurons derived from stem cells is a promising therapeutic strategy. Our research, which provides key insights into how sensory interneurons naturally develop, gets us one step closer to that goal.”

The next stop on the team’s research journey is to understand how BMPs influence sensory neuron development in a human stem cell model. The UCLA news release gave a sneak preview of their plans in the coming years.

“Butler’s team now plans to apply their findings to human stem cells as well as drug testing platforms that target diseased sensory interneurons. They also hope to investigate the feasibility of using sensory interneurons in cellular replacement therapies that may one day restore sensation to paralyzed patients.”

Targeting hair follicle stem cells could be the key to fighting hair loss

Chia Pets make growing hair look easy. You might not be familiar with these chia plant terracotta figurines if you were born after the 80s, but I remember watching commercials growing up and desperately wanting a “Chia Pet, the pottery that grows!”

My parents eventually caved and got me a Chia teddy bear, and I was immediately impressed by how easy it was for my bear to grow “hair”. All I needed to do was to sprinkle water over the chia seeds and spread them over my chia pet, and in three weeks, voila, I had a bear that had sprouted a lush, thick coat of chia leaves.

These days, you can order Chia celebrities and even Chia politicians. If only treating hair loss in humans was as easy as growing sprouts on the top of Chia Mr. T’s head…

Activating Hair Follicle Stem Cells, the secret to hair growth?

That day might come sooner than we think thanks to a CIRM-funded study by UCLA scientists.

Published today in Nature Cell Biology, the UCLA team reported a new way to boost hair growth that could eventually translate into new treatments for hair loss. The study was spearheaded by senior authors Heather Christofk and William Lowry, both professors at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA.

Christofk and Lowry were interested in understanding the biology of hair follicle stem cells (HFSCs) and how their metabolism (the set of chemical changes required for a cell to sustain itself) plays a role in hair growth. HFSCs are adult stem cells that live in the hair follicles of our skin. They are typically inactive but can quickly “wake up” and actively divide when a new hair growth cycle is initiated. When HFSCs fail to activate, hair loss occurs.

A closer look at HFSCs in mice revealed that these stem cells are dependent on the products of the glycolytic pathway, a metabolic pathway that converts the nutrient glucose into a metabolite called pyruvate, to stimulate their activation. The HFSCs have a choice, they can either give the pyruvate to their mitochondria to produce more energy, or they can break down the pyruvate into another metabolite called lactate.

The scientists found that if they tipped the balance towards producing more lactate, the HFSCs activated and induced hair growth. On the other hand, if they blocked lactate production, HFSCs couldn’t activate and new hair growth was blocked.

In a UCLA news release, Lowry explained the novel findings of their study,

“Before this, no one knew that increasing or decreasing the lactate would have an effect on hair follicle stem cells. Once we saw how altering lactate production in the mice influenced hair growth, it led us to look for potential drugs that could be applied to the skin and have the same effect.”

New drugs for hair loss?

In the second half of the study, the UCLA team went on the hunt for drugs that promote lactate production in HFSCs in hopes of finding new treatment strategies to battle hair loss. They found two drugs that boosted lactate production when applied to the skin of mice. One was called RCGD423, which activates the JAK-Stat signaling pathway and stimulates lactate production. The other drug, UK5099, blocks the entry of pyruvate into the mitochondria, thereby forcing HFSCs to turn pyruvate into lactate resulting in hair growth. The use of both drugs for boosting hair growth are covered by provisional patent applications filed by the UCLA Technology Development Group.

Untreated mouse skin showing no hair growth (left) compared to mouse skin treated with the drug UK5099 (right) showing hair growth. Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center/Nature Cell Biology

Aimee Flores, the first author of the study, concluded by explaining why using drugs to target the HFSC metabolism is a promising approach for treating hair loss.

“Through this study, we gained a lot of interesting insight into new ways to activate stem cells. The idea of using drugs to stimulate hair growth through hair follicle stem cells is very promising given how many millions of people, both men and women, deal with hair loss. I think we’ve only just begun to understand the critical role metabolism plays in hair growth and stem cells in general; I’m looking forward to the potential application of these new findings for hair loss and beyond.”

If these hair growth drugs pan out, scientists might give Chia Pets a run for their money.

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.

A single protein can boost blood stem cell regeneration

Today, CIRM-funded scientists from the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center reported  in Nature Medicine that hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) – blood stem cells that generate the cell in your blood and immune system – get a helping hand after injury from cells in the bone marrow called bone progenitor cells. By secreting a protein called dickkopf-1 (Dkk1), bone progenitor cells improve the recovery and survival of blood stem cells in a culture dish and in mice whose immune systems are suppressed by irradiation.

These findings build upon a related study published by the same UCLA team last month showing that deleting a single gene in HSCs boosts blood stem cell regeneration. We covered this initial story previously on the Stem Cellar, and you can refer to it for background on the importance of stimulating the regenerative capacity of HSCs in patients that need bone marrow transplants or have undergone radiation therapy for cancer.

Dkk1 boost blood stem cell regeneration

Senior author on the study, UCLA Professor Dr. John Chute, wanted to understand how the different cell types in the bone marrow environment, or niche, interact with HSCs to enhance their ability to recover from injury and regenerate the immune system. As mentioned earlier, he and his team found that bone progenitor cells secrete Dkk1 protein in response to injury caused by exposing mice to full body irradiation. Dkk1 promoted blood stem cell regeneration in the mice and increased their survival rates.

I inquired with Dr. Chute about this seemingly beneficial relationship between HSCs and cells in the bone marrow niche.

Dr. John Chute, UCLA

Dr. John Chute, UCLA

“The precise functions of bone cells, stromal cells and endothelial cells in regulating blood stem cell fate are not completely understood,” said Dr. Chute. “Our prior studies demonstrated that endothelial cells are necessary for blood stem cell regeneration after irradiation.  The current study suggests that bone progenitor cells are also necessary for normal blood stem cell regeneration after irradiation, and that this activity is mediated by secretion of Dkk1 by the bone progenitor cells.”

He further commented in a UCLA press release:

“The cellular niche is like the soil that surrounds the stem cell ‘seed’ and helps it grow and proliferate. Our hypothesis was that the bone progenitor cell in the niche may promote hematopoietic stem cell regeneration after injury.”

Not only did Dkk1 improve HSC regeneration in irradiated mice, it also boosted the regeneration of HSCs that were irradiated in a culture dish. On the other hand, when Dkk1 was deleted from HSCs in irradiated mice, the HSCs did not recover and regenerate. Diving in deeper, the team found that Dkk1 promotes blood stem cell regeneration by direct action on the stem cells and by indirectly increasing the secretion of the stem cell growth factor EGF by bone marrow blood vessels. Taken together, the team concluded that Dkk1 is necessary for blood stem cell recovery following injury/irradiation.

After radiation, blood cells (purple) regenerated in bone marrow when mice were given DKK1 intravenously (left), but not in those that received saline solution (right). (UCLA/Nature Medicine)

After radiation, blood cells (purple) regenerated in bone marrow when mice were given DKK1 (left), but not in those that received saline solution (right). (UCLA/Nature Medicine)

Future applications for blood stem cell regeneration

When I asked Dr. Chute how his current study on Dkk1 and HSCs relates to his previous study on boosting HSC regeneration by deleting a gene called Grb10, he explained:

“In this paper we discovered the role of a niche cell-derived protein, Dkk1, and how it promotes blood stem cell regeneration after myelosuppression in mice.  In the Cell Reports paper, we described our discovery of an adaptor protein, Grb10, which is expressed by blood stem cells and the inhibition of which also promotes blood stem cell regeneration after myelosuppression. So, these are two novel molecular mechanisms that regulate blood stem cell regeneration that could be therapeutically targeted.”

Both studies offer new strategies for promoting blood stem cell regeneration in patients who need to replenish their blood and immune systems following radiation treatments or bone marrow transplants.

Dr. Chute concluded:

“We are very interested in translating our observations into the clinic for the purpose of accelerating hematologic recovery in patients receiving chemotherapy or undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.”


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Family ties help drive UCLA’s search for a stem cell treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Duchenne

April Pyle, Courtney Young and Melissa Spencer: Photo courtesy UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

People get into science for all sorts of different reasons. For Courtney Young the reason was easy; she has a cousin with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Now her work as part of a team at UCLA has led to a new approach that could eventually help many of those suffering from Duchenne, the most common fatal childhood genetic disease.

The disease, which usually affects boys, leads to progressive muscle weakness, which means children may lose their ability to walk by age 12 and eventually results in breathing difficulties and heart disease.

Duchenne is caused by a defective gene, which leads to very low levels of a protein called dystrophin – an important element in building strong, healthy muscles. There are many sections of the gene where this defect or mutation can be found, but in 60 percent of cases it occurs within one particular hot spot of DNA. That’s the area that the UCLA team focused on, helped in part by a grant from CIRM.

Skin in the game

First they obtained skin cells from people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and turned those into iPS cells. Those cells have the ability to become any other cell in the body and, just as importantly for this research, still retain the genetic code from the person they came from. In this case it meant they still had the genetic defect that led to Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Then the researchers used a gene editing tool called CRISPR (we’ve written about this a lot in the past, you can a couple of those articles  here and here  and here)  to remove the genetic mutations that cause Duchenne. They then turned those iPS cells into skeletal muscle cells and transplanted them into mice that had the genetic mutation that meant they couldn’t produce dystrophin.

To their delight they found that the transplanted cells produced dystrophin in the mice.

Breaking new ground

April Pyle, a co-senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Cell Stem Cell,  said, in a news release, this was the first study to use human iPS cells to correct the problem in muscle tissue caused by Duchenne:

“This work demonstrates the feasibility of using a single gene editing platform, plus the regenerative power of stem cells to correct genetic mutations and restore dystrophin production for 60 percent of Duchenne patients.”

The researchers say this is an important step towards developing a new treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but caution there are still many years of work before this approach will be ready to test in people.

For Courtney Young advancing the science is not just professionally gratifying, it’s also personally satisfying:

“I already knew I was interested in science, so after my cousin’s diagnosis, I decided to dedicate my career to finding a cure for Duchenne. It makes everything a lot more meaningful, knowing that I’m doing something to help all the boys who will come after my cousin. I feel like I’m contributing and I’m excited because the field of Duchenne research is advancing in a really positive direction.”