Midwest universities are making important tools to advance stem cell research

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iPSCs are not just pretty, they’re also pretty remarkable

Two Midwest universities are making headlines for their contributions to stem cell research. Both are developing important tools to advance this field of study, but in two unique ways.

Scientists at the University of Michigan (UM), have compiled an impressive repository of disease-specific stem cell lines. Cell lines are crucial tools for scientists to study the mechanics of different diseases and allows them to do so without animal models. While animal models have important benefits, such as the ability to study a disease within the context of a living mammal, insights gained from such models can be difficult to translate to humans and many diseases do not even have good models to use.

The stem cell lines generated at the Reproductive Sciences Program at UM, are thanks to numerous individuals who donated extra embryos they did not use for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Researchers at UM then screened these embryos for abnormalities associated with different types of disease and generated some 36 different stem cell lines. These have been donated to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry, and include cell lines for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease and hemophilia.

Using one such cell line, Dr. Peter Todd at UM, found that the genetic abnormality associated with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that results in developmental delays and learning disabilities, can be corrected by using a novel biological tool. Because Fragile X Syndrome does not have a good animal model, this stem cell line was critical for improving our understanding of this disease.

In the next state over, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), researchers are doing similar work but using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for their work.

The Human Stem Cell Gene Editing Service has proved to be an important resource in expediting research projects across campus. They use CRISPR-Cas9 technology (an efficient method to mutate or edit the DNA of any organism), to generate human stem cell lines that contain disease specific mutations. Researchers use these cell lines to determine how the mutation affects cells and/or how to correct the cellular abnormality the mutation causes. Unlike the work at UM, these stem cell lines are derived from iPSCs  which can be generated from easy to obtain human samples, such as skin cells.

The gene editing services at UWM have already proved to be so popular in their short existence that they are considering expanding to be able to accommodate off-campus requests. This highlights the extent to which both CRISPR technology and stem cell research are being used to answer important scientific questions to advance our understanding of disease.

CIRM also created an iPSC bank that researchers can use to study different diseases. The  Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Repository is  the largest repository of its kind in the world and is used by researchers across the globe.

The iPSC Repository was created by CIRM to house a collection of stem cells from thousands of individuals, some healthy, but some with diseases such as heart, lung or liver disease, or disorders such as autism. The goal is for scientists to use these cells to better understand diseases and develop and test new therapies to combat them. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the cell types from patients that are affected in disease, but for which cells cannot otherwise be easily obtained in large quantities.

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: spinal cord injury trial update, blood stem cells in lungs, and using parsley for stem cell therapies

More good news on a CIRM-funded trial for spinal cord injury. The results are now in for Asterias Biotherapeutics’ Phase 1/2a clinical trial testing a stem cell-based therapy for patients with spinal cord injury. They reported earlier this week that six out of six patients treated with 10 million AST-OPC1 cells, which are a type of brain cell called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, showed improvements in their motor function. Previously, they had announced that five of the six patients had shown improvement with the jury still out on the sixth because that patient was treated later in the trial.

 In a news release, Dr. Edward Wirth, the Chief Medical officer at Asterias, highlighted these new and exciting results:

 “We are excited to see the sixth and final patient in the AIS-A 10 million cell cohort show upper extremity motor function improvement at 3 months and further improvement at 6 months, especially because this particular patient’s hand and arm function had actually been deteriorating prior to receiving treatment with AST-OPC1. We are very encouraged by the meaningful improvements in the use of arms and hands seen in the SciStar study to date since such gains can increase a patient’s ability to function independently following complete cervical spinal cord injuries.”

Overall, the trial suggests that AST-OPC1 treatment has the potential to improve motor function in patients with severe spinal cord injury. So far, the therapy has proven to be safe and likely effective in improving some motor function in patients although control studies will be needed to confirm that the cells are responsible for this improvement. Asterias plans to test a higher dose of 20 million cells in AIS-A patients later this year and test the 10 million cell dose in AIS-B patients that a less severe form of spinal cord injury.

 Steve Cartt, CEO of Asterias commented on their future plans:

 “These results are quite encouraging, and suggest that there are meaningful improvements in the recovery of functional ability in patients treated with the 10 million cell dose of AST-OPC1 versus spontaneous recovery rates observed in a closely matched untreated patient population. We look forward to reporting additional efficacy and safety data for this cohort, as well as for the currently-enrolling AIS-A 20 million cell and AIS-B 10 million cell cohorts, later this year.”

Lungs aren’t just for respiration. Biology textbooks may be in need of some serious rewrites based on a UCSF study published this week in Nature. The research suggests that the lungs are a major source of blood stem cells and platelet production. The long prevailing view has been that the bone marrow was primarily responsible for those functions.

The new discovery was made possible by using special microscopy that allowed the scientists to view the activity of individual cells within the blood vessels of a living mouse lung (watch the fascinating UCSF video below). The mice used in the experiments were genetically engineered so that their platelet-producing cells glowed green under the microscope. Platelets – cell fragments that clump up and stop bleeding – were known to be produced to some extent by the lungs but the UCSF team was shocked by their observations: the lungs accounted for half of all platelet production in these mice.

Follow up experiments examined the movement of blood cells between the lung and bone marrow. In one experiment, the researchers transplanted healthy lungs from the green-glowing mice into a mouse strain that lacked adequate blood stem cell production in the bone marrow. After the transplant, microscopy showed that the green fluorescent cells from the donor lung traveled to the host’s bone marrow and gave rise to platelets and several other cells of the immune system. Senior author Mark Looney talked about the novelty of these results in a university press release:

Mark Looney, MD

“To our knowledge this is the first description of blood progenitors resident in the lung, and it raises a lot of questions with clinical relevance for the millions of people who suffer from thrombocytopenia [low platelet count].”

If this newfound role of the lung is shown to exist in humans, it may provide new therapeutic approaches to restoring platelet and blood stem cell production seen in various diseases. And it will give lung transplants surgeons pause to consider what effects immune cells inside the donor lung might have on organ rejection.

Add a little vanilla to this stem cell therapy. Typically, the only connection between plants and stem cell clinical trials are the flowers that are given to the patient by friends and family. But research published this week in the Advanced Healthcare Materials journal aims to use plant husks as part of the cell therapy itself.

Though we tend to focus on the poking and prodding of stem cells when discussing the development of new therapies, an equally important consideration is the use of three-dimensional scaffolds. Stem cells tend to grow better and stay healthier when grown on these structures compared to the flat two-dimensional surface of a petri dish. Various methods of building scaffolds are under development such as 3D printing and designing molds using materials that aren’t harmful to human tissue.

Human fibroblast cells growing on decellularized parsley.
Image: Gianluca Fontana/UW-Madison

But in the current study, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took a creative approach to building scaffolds: they used the husks of parsley, vanilla and orchid plants. The researchers figured that millions of years of evolution almost always leads to form and function that is much more stable and efficient than anything humans can create. Lead author Gianluca Fontana explained in a university press release how the characteristics of plants lend themselves well to this type of bioengineering:

Gianluca Fontana, PhD

“Nature provides us with a tremendous reservoir of structures in plants. You can pick the structure you want.”

The technique relies on removing all the cells of the plant, leaving behind its outer layer which is mostly made of cellulose, long chains of sugars that make up plant cell walls. The resulting hollow, tubular husks have similar shapes to those found in human intestines, lungs and the bladder.

The researchers showed that human stem cells not only attach and grow onto the plant scaffolds but also organize themselves in alignment with the structures’ patterns. The function of human tissues rely on an organized arrangement of cells so it’s possible these plant scaffolds could be part of a tissue replacement cell product. Senior author William Murphy also points out that the scaffolds are easily altered:

William Murphy, PhD

“They are quite pliable. They can be easily cut, fashioned, rolled or stacked to form a range of different sizes and shapes.”

And the fact these scaffolds are natural products that are cheap to manufacture makes this a project well worth watching.

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

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Dopamine producing brain nerve cells, made from embryonic stem cells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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