Freezing Amnion-Derived Stem Cells in Xeno-Free Media Feasible

Amnion-derived stem cells show a dizzying set of regenerative properties, at least in the laboratory (see Miki T, Stem Cell Res Ther 2011, 2:25; Miki T, Grubbs B, J Obstet Gynaecol Res 2014, 40:360-8). Bringing these cells into the clinic will definitely take a lot more work, but a new paper examines a culture system that does not use any animal products. Such culture systems (known as “xeno-free) are vitally important if stem cells are going to be used in human trials.

When stem cells are grown in culture, typically serum from animal blood is used to provide the cells with the growth factors and things they need to kick the cells into the growth phase. However, occasionally, some animal-based products have animal viruses that can infect human cells with unpredictable consequences (see Karlsson JOM, Toner M, Biomaterials 1996, 17:243-56). Also, cells grown in animal-based culture media can have animal proteins around them that are very hard to get rid of. Implanting such cells into a human patient would cause their immune system to react against the animal proteins. Such immune responses might result in something as innocuous as itching at the site of injection or as dangerous as anaphylactic shock. Therefore, growing stem cells under xeno-free conditions is important for many stem cell applications.  Expanding and preserving stem cells under so-called Good Manufacturing Pracctices (GMP) is essential for their use in human patients.

However, now we have just opened another can of worms. If all the characterizations of stem cells have been under culture conditions that utilize animal-based culture media, will the cells have the same capabilities if grown under xeno-free conditions?

Herein is the reason why this paper by Toshio Miki from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and his colleagues is so important. In this paper, which was published in the journal Stem Cell Research and Therapy (Stem Cell Research & Therapy 2016, 7:8 doi:10.1186/s13287-015-0258-z), Miki and others examined the characteristics of amniotic stem cells grown in xeno-free media (see Mitry RR, Lehec SC, Hughes RD, Methods Mol Biol 2010, 640:107-13; Polchow B, et al. J Transl Med 2012, 10:98; Stacy GN, Masters JR, Nat Protoc 2008, 3:1981-89; Miki T, et al. Curr Protoc Stem Cell Biol 2010, Chapter 1:Unit 1E.3) and compared them to stem cells grown in standard culture media. This is a very important exercise, since amniotic stem cells are easily accessible as source of material for regenerative treatments that can be banked and immunotype matched for clinical applications.

Miki and others isolated human amniotic epithelial cells from newborn babies with the consent of their parents and then stored the cells at −160 °C in one of five commercially available culture media. Miki and his group used cells frozen in standard media containing fetal bovine serum as controls to which all the other cells were compared. Then they thawed the cells, and tested their viability, mitochondrial integrity, and senescence status (tendency to fall asleep in culture and stop growing). They also examined gene expression profiles in these cells by using quantitative real-time PCR. Flow cytometry was used to identify the stem cell surface markers.

The results were encouraging and interesting. There were no significant differences in viability and growth in cells grown and preserved in xeno-free media versus standard cryopreservation medium. Additionally, comparisons of the cells grown in the different cryopreservation media did not reveal significant differences in the senescence status, mitochondria, or overall morphology of the cells. The upshot is that the cells preserved in standard or xeno-free media looked and grew the same after being thawed. There were some differences in the expression of stem cell marker genes (e.g., OCT4, SOX2, and NANOG) and a particular cell surface marker (TRA1-60) following cryopreservation in different xeno-free media. However, it turns out these differences were slight and, overall, not statistically significant. Again, the upshot is that there were small differences in gene expression, but these differences did not amount to a hill of beans.

Miki and his colleagues have nicely shown that cryopreserving amnion-derived stem cells in xeno-free media is feasible and does not affect the characteristics of the cells. This paper also suggests that such xeno-free media can be used to establish a bio-bank of human amnion-derived stem cells for future clinical application.

Well that’s one hurdle vaulted. Now Miki and others need to figure out which of the xeno-free media is the best and optimize that medium to for improved preservation of stem cell-like characteristics in these cells.

Alveolar Macrophages Derived from Stem Cells Help Lung-Damaged Mice Recover and Survive from Airway Disease

Within the tiny alveolar sacs of our lungs is an immune cell that surveys and directs the immune response within the lung. This immune cell is called an “alveolar macrophage,” and this cell is an actively phagocytic cell. It gobbles up invading bacteria and foreign material in order to keep the lungs clean. When these cells work normally, they help our lungs function properly. When, however, they go rogue, they can fill the lungs with cells that clog the lungs and prevent you from breathing.

Alveolar Macrophages
Alveolar Macrophages

Certain diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and lung fibrosis, have abnormal alveolar macrophages and no specific treatments can appropriately compensate for these abnormalities.

Since alveolar macrophages (AMs) can be made from pluripotent stem cells, perhaps transplanting exogenous AMs derived from pluripotent stem cells can clean up messy lungs.

Martin Post, from the University of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada, and his colleagues tested this very hypothesis in mice. Post and his coworkers differentiated mouse embryonic stem cells by using factor-defined media in order to generate embryonic macrophages that could be grown in culture. Then they conditioned their cells into an alveolar-like phenotype by treating them with the cytokine GM-CSF. The cells were surprisingly like normal AMs, at least in culture.

To test these cells in mice, Post and his group created mice that lacked the ADA (adenine deaminase) gene and these mice lacked proper AM activity and suffered chronic lung damage.

Next, Post’s team transplanted their embryonic stem cell-derived alveolar-like macrophages into the tracheas (windpipes) of these injured animals in order to view their therapeutic potential.

What Post and others saw truly amazed them. Not only was their differentiation protocol wonderfully efficient and adaptable to human pluripotent stem cells, but their PSC-derived macrophages essentially “walked and talked” like regular, normal AMs. These cells made all the right cell surface proteins to be identified as AMs and they engulfed bacteria and dying cells. In fact, they were better phagocytes than bone marrow-derived macrophages.

The implanted macrophages stayed in the airways of the recipient mice for at least 4 weeks, and were able to gobble up other types of rogue white blood cells (i.e., neutrophils) during acute lung injury. Thus, the implanted cells were able to protect the lung from further damage under conditions of lung injury. Additionally, the implanted AMs enhanced tissue repair in the lungs and promoted survival of these mice. Interestingly, the mice did not develop abnormal pathology or teratomas as a result of the implanted macrophages.

Thus, this work from Post and his colleagues shows that pluripotent stem cells are a viable source of therapeutically effective alveolar-like macrophages that can be implanted into the lungs and treat airway diseases. Further experiments in larger animals should prepare this strategy for clinical trials.

This study was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. published online 05 Jan 2016 as DOI: 10.1164/rccm.201509-1838OC.

BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics Will Conduct Phase 2 Clinical Trial on ALS Patients with Their NurOwn® Cells

The biotechnology company BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics Inc. has developed an autologous stem cell therapy for several neurodegenerative diseases including Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson’s Disease (PD). BrainStorm has designed a proprietary product called NurOwn™ that is made from the patient’s own bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (BM-MSCs). Essentially, the patient’s BM-MSCs are isolated, purified, and cultured in a specialized culture system that drives the BM-MSCs to differentiate into nerve-like cells that Neurotrophic Factors (NTF). These NTFs have the capacity to keep nerve cells alive and prevent moribund cells from dying.

Figure taken from
Figure taken from 

By transplanting NurOwn cells back into the patient at or near the site of neural damage, in the spine and/or muscles, it could potentially delay or even roll back damage from neurodegeneration. NurOwn cells have proven their efficacy in animal experiments (e.g., STEM CELLS 2008;26:2542–2551), and in a few small clinical trials.

In one case, a 75-year-old man who suffered from ALS and myasthenia gravis (the immune system attacks your own receptors for acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction, which prevents the muscle contraction), was treated with NurOwn cells, and experienced the following improvement 1 month later.

Figure copying (a test of visuospatial function) of the patient, before and 1 month after the first enhanced (neurotrophic factors producing) mesenchymal stem cell (MSC‐NTF) transplantation.
Figure copying (a test of visuospatial function) of the patient, before and 1 month after the first enhanced (neurotrophic factors producing) mesenchymal stem cell (MSC‐NTF) transplantation.

This is only a case study and involves only one patient, which is the absolute lowest-quality evidence you can have in medicine.  Therefore, this study is suggestive that NurOwn cells can help ALS patients improve.

Now BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics has entered into a collaborative agreement with Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel, to conduct a Phase 2 clinical trial to test the ability of NurOwn cells to treatment patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

This clinical trial is not BrainStorm’s first rodeo, since they have conducted two other clinical trials in collaboration with Hadassah Medical Center. BrainStorm hopes that the results of this clinical trial will provide guidance in preparing a Phase 3 clinical trial that will test their NurOwn® stem cell based therapy in patients suffering from ALS.

In this trial, BrainStorm plans to enroll up to 24 ALS patients, all of whom will receive three consecutive stem cell transplantations of their own BM-MSCs that have been genetically engineered to secrete NFTs. The goal of this trial is to establish the safety and efficacy of a treatment regimen that includes multiple doses of stem cells. Because this trial includes human subjects, it must be approved by Hadassah’s Helsinki Committee and the Israeli Ministry of Health before the study can commence.

Professor Dimitrios Karussis, MD, PhD, Head of the Unit of Neuroimmunology and Cell Therapies at Hadassah’s Department of Neurology, who served as Principal Investigator in Brainstorm’s prior ALS studies, will serve as the Principal Investigator for this trial.

“NurOwn has generated promising clinical data in ALS and has the potential to offer a new approach for the treatment of patients afflicted with this disease,” stated Professor Karussis. “We are excited to be collaborating with BrainStorm to advance this product to the next phase of development and the application of stem cell therapies in similar neurological diseases in general.”

“Evaluating multiple doses with NurOwn is an important next step in our efforts to understand the treatment effect of this investigative medicine,” stated Chaim Lebovits, CEO of Brainstorm. “We are pleased to continue our partnership with Hadassah Medical Center, which has long maintained a reputation for excellence in the treatment of neurological disorders.”

Making Cartilage from Umbilical Cord Stem Cells Without Growth Factors

Loïc Reppel and his colleagues at CNRS-Université de Lorraine in France have found that mesenchymal stem cells from human umbilical cord can not only be induced to make cartilage, but that these remarkable cells can make cartilage without the use of exogenous growth factors.

Mesenchymal stromal/stem cells from bone marrow (BM-MSC) have, for some time, been the “all stars” for cartilage regeneration. In fact, a very innovative clinic near Denver, CO has pioneered the use of BM-MSCs for patients with cartilage injuries. Chris Centeno, the mover and shaker, of this clinic has carefully documented the restoration of articular cartilage in many patients in peer-reviewed articles.

However, there is another “kid’ on the cartilage-regeneration block; mesenchymal stromal/stem cells from Wharton’s jelly (WJ-MSC). The advantages of these cells are their low immunogenicity and large cartilage-making potential. In this paper, which was published in Stem Cell Research and Therapy, Reppel and others evaluated the ability of WJ-MSCs to make cartilage in three-dimensional culture systems.

Reppell and his coworkers embedded WJ-MSCs isolated from the umbilical cords of new-born babies in alginate/hyaluronic acid hydrogel and grew them for over 28 days. These hydrogels were constructed by the spraying method. The hydrogel solution (for those who are interested, it was 1.5 % (m/v) alginate and hyaluronic acid (ratio 4:1) dissolved in 0.9 % NaCl) was sprayed an airbrush connected to a compressor. The solution was seeded with WJ-MSCs and then sprayed on a sterile glass plate. The hydrogel was made solid (gelation) in a CaCl 2 bath (102 mM for 10 minutes). Then small cylinders were cut (5 mm diameter and 2 mm thickness) with a biopsy punch. Then Reppel and others compared the chondrogenic differentiation of WJ-MSC in these three-dimensional scaffolds, without adding growth factors with BM-MSC.

Illustration of protocol steps used to perform scaffold construct and chondrogenic differentiation. After monolayer expansion, MSC were seeded at 3× 10 6 cells/mL of Alg/HA hydrogel. Hydrogel was sprayed, gelated, and cut into 5 mm diameter cylinders; scale bar = 5 mm. Scaffolds were cultivated in a 48-well plate in differentiation medium for 28 days. Alg/HA alginate/hyaluronic acid, MSC mesenchymal stromal/stem cells, P3 passage 3
Illustration of protocol steps used to perform scaffold construct and chondrogenic differentiation. After monolayer expansion, MSC were seeded at 3× 10 6 cells/mL of Alg/HA hydrogel. Hydrogel was sprayed, gelated, and cut into 5 mm diameter cylinders; scale bar = 5 mm. Scaffolds were cultivated in a 48-well plate in differentiation medium for 28 days. Alg/HA alginate/hyaluronic acid, MSC mesenchymal stromal/stem cells, P3 passage 3

After 3 days in culture, WJ-MSCs seemed nicely adapted to their new three-dimensional culture system without any detectable damage. From day 14 – 28, the proportion of WJ-MSC cells that expressed all kinds of cell surface proteins characteristic of MSCs (i.e., CD73, CD90, CD105, and CD166) decreased significantly. This suggests that these cells were differentiating into some other cell type.

After 28 days in this scaffold culture, both WJ-MSCs and BM-MSCs showed strong upregulation of cartilage-specific genes. However, WJ-MSCs exhibited greater type II collagen synthesis than BM-MSCs, and these differences were evident at the RNA and protein levels. Collagen II is a very important molecule when it comes to cartilage synthesis because chondrogenesis, otherwise known as cartilage production, occurs when MSCs differentiate into cartilage-making cells known as chondroblasts that begins secreting aggrecan and collagen type II that form the extracellular matrix that forms cartilage. Unfortunately, in order to complete the run to mature cartilage formation, the chrondrocytes must enlarge (hypertrophy), and express the transcription factor Runx2 and secrete collagen X. Unfortunately, WJ-MSCs expressed Runx2 and type X collagen at lower levels than BM-MSCs in this culture system.

Matrix synthesis detected after 28 days of chondrogenic induction. Proteoglycans and total collagen were stained by Alcian blue and Sirius red (a), respectively. To explore the synthesis of various collagens in depth, immunofluorescence (b) and immunohistochemistry staining (c) were performed and detected using fluorescence microscopy and light microscopy, respectively; scale bar = 100 μm. BM-MSC bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stromal/stem cells, WJ-MSC Wharton’s jelly-derived mesenchymal stromal/stem cells
Matrix synthesis detected after 28 days of chondrogenic induction. Proteoglycans and total collagen were stained by Alcian blue and Sirius red (a), respectively. To explore the synthesis of various collagens in depth, immunofluorescence (b) and immunohistochemistry staining (c) were performed and detected using fluorescence microscopy and light microscopy, respectively; scale bar = 100 μm. BM-MSC bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stromal/stem cells, WJ-MSC Wharton’s jelly-derived mesenchymal stromal/stem cells

These experiments only examined cells in culture, which is not the same as placing cells in a living animal, but it is a start. Thus, when they are seeded in the hydrogel scaffold, WJ-MSCs and BM-MSCs, after 4 weeks, were able to adapt to their environment and express specific cartilage-related genes and matrix proteins in the absence of growth factors. In order to properly make cartilage in clinical applications, WJ-MSCs must go the full way and express high levels of Runx2 and collagen X. However, these experiments show that WJ-MSCs, which in the past were medical waste, are a potential alternative source of stem cells for cartilage tissue engineering.

Reppel and his colleagues note in their paper that to improve cartilage production from WJ-MSCs, it might be important to mimic the physiological environment in which chondrocytes normally find themselves. For example, they could apply mechanical stress or even a low-oxygen culture system. Additionally, Reppel and others could apply stratified cartilage tissue engineering. Reppel thinks that they could adapt their spraying method to design new stratified engineered tissues by applying progressive cells and spraying hydrogel layers one at a time.

All in all, cartilage repair based with WJ-MSC embedded in Alginate/Hyaluronic Acid hydrogel will hopefully be tested in laboratory animals and then, perhaps, if all goes well, in clinical trials.

Pluripotent Stem Cells Used to Make a Functional Thyroid

The thyroid gland sits over the main cartilage of the larynx and produces thyroid hormone (thyroxine); a hormone that regulates the basal metabolic rate. When the thyroid slows down and fails to make sufficient amounts of thyroid hormone, the result is a condition called hypothyroidism. The symptoms of hypothyroidism are fatigue, weakness, weight gain or increased difficulty losing weight, coarse, dry hair, dry, rough pale skin, hair loss, cold intolerance, muscle cramps and frequent muscle aches, constipation, depression, irritability, memory loss, abnormal menstrual cycles and decreased libido.

If someone has any evidence of a thyroid tumor, then the thyroid is removed, and the patient must take oral thyroid hormone. Because getting the dose right can be difficult, we might ask, “Can we replace the thyroid with stem cell treatments?”

Human pluripotent stem cells can differentiate into balls of cells that are mini-organs called “organoids.”  Unfortunately, if left to themselves, the formation of these organoids is rather haphazard and the cells tend to differentiate into a whole host of different cell types. This is not fatal, however, since the differentiation of these stem cells can be orchestrated by using growth factors or certain culture conditions. Can we use such innovations to make a minithyroid?

Darrell Kotton and his group at Boston University School of Medicine Pulmonary, Allergy, Sleep and Critical Care Medicine have spent their time tweaking the conditions to drive human pluripotent stem cells to form thyroid cells. A new study of theirs that appears in the journal Cell Stem Cell details how the use of two growth factors, BMP4 and FGF2 can drive pluripotent stem cells to commit to thyroid cell fates.

In order to make thyroid cells from embryonic stem cells (ESCs), Kotton and his group had to make endodermal progenitors from them first. Fortunately, a study from Kotton’s own laboratory that was published in 2012 employed a technique used in several other papers that grew ESCs in a serum-free medium with a growth factor called activin. Christodoulou, C., and others (J. Clin. Invest. 121, 2313–2325) showed that over 80 percent of the ESCs grown under these conditions differentiated into endodermal progenitors.  When Kotton and his colleagues cultured these endodermal progenitors in BMP4 and FGF2, some of them differentiated into thyroid progenitor cells. Interestingly, this mechanism by which thyroid-specific cell fates are specified is conserved in creatures as disparate as frogs and mice.

To make mature thyroid cells from these progenitors, a three-dimensional culture system was used in combination with thyroid stimulation hormone and dexamethasone. Under these conditions, the cells formed spherical thyroid follicles that secreted thyroid hormone. To perfect their protocols, Kotton’s group used mouse ESCs, but they additionally showed that this same strategy can make mature thyroid cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Thyroid specification

The appearance of cells in a culture system that look like mature thyroid follicles and express many of the same iodine-metabolizing enzymes as mature thyroid cells is exciting, but can such cells stand in for thyroid tissue in an animal that lacks sufficient thyroid tissue?

Kotton’s laboratory took this to the next step by transplanting their cultured thyroid follicles into laboratory mice that lacked a functional thyroid. These transplants were not inserted into the neck of the animal, but instead were place underneath the kidney, which is area rich in blood vessels. Interestingly, the implanted thyroid “organoids” or little organs did not fall apart upon transplantation. Instead they retained their characteristic structure. More interestingly, these organoids kept expressing iodine-metabolizing enzymes and made thyroid hormone. The synthesis and release of thyroid hormone was also regulated by the hypothalamic hormone thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is made and released in response to insufficient thyroid hormone levels. The thyroid responds to TSH by making a releasing more thyroid hormone, which causes a feed-back inhibition of the release of TSH. The fact that these implanted organoids were properly regulated by TSH bespeaks of the maturity of these cells. Also, significantly, none of the laboratory animals showed any signs that the implanted cells had formed any tumors.

Kotton and his coworkers were also able to used human ESCs and human iPSCs to make thyroid organoids. Human iPSCs-derived thyroid organoids were made from human patients with normal thyroid function and from hypothyroid children who carry a loss-of-function mutation in the NKX2-1 gene. This show that Kotton’s system can be used as a model to study inherited thyroid deficiencies. However, there is even more excitement that this system or something similar to it might be useful to safely treat thyroid loss in patients who have lost their thyroid as a result of cancer, or injury.

Vitamin A as a Treatment For Colon Cancer

A new study that was published in the journal Cancer Cell, has introduced a way to treat colon, which is not only a leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, but is notoriously resistant to treatment.

This collaboration between Swiss and Japanese scientists has identified an anticancer mechanism that includes vitamin A that can be tapped to inhibit colon cancer.

Colon cancer patients are typically treated with chemotherapy, which kills off most of the cancer cells, but leaves a few resistant cells that then aggressively grow back to form another deadlier tumor that can readily spread throughout the body. Chemotherapy ultimately fails because there are a core of rouge stem cells that divide uncontrollably called cancer stem cells that drives the growth of the cancer. These cancer stem cells are what is driving the growth of the tumor and if these cancer stem cells are not eliminated, the tumor will simply come back after chemotherapy. When a colon cancer patient receives treatment such as chemotherapy, most of the cancer cells die off.

Joerg Huelsken, Ph.D., of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) led his research team to understand how stem cells populations in the colon give rise to new colon cells to replace dead, dying or cells that have been sloughed off. In mice and in tissue samples from human patients, a protein called HOXA5 kept asserting itself. HOXA5 turns out to be an integral part of the machinery of the cell that ensures that the cells of the colon properly differentiate after they are born from colon stem cells.

Huelsken’s team showed that in the colon, HOXA5 helps restrict the number of stem cells. Cancerous stem cells, however, block the expression of HOXA5 and prevent it from restricting stem cell numbers. HOXA5 is part of a signaling pathway that activates aspects of the cellular machinery that negatively controls cell growth. By blocking expression of the HOXA5 gene, these cancerous stem cells in the colon can grow uncontrollably and spread, thereby causing relapses and metastasis or spread of the colon cancer.

Huelsken and his team, in collaboration with Japanese researchers from Kyoto University investigated ways to unblock the expression of HOXA5 in colon cancer stem cells. The answer came from an unexpected corner – vitamin A. Vitamin A is a member of the retinoid family of molecules and has been known for some time to be able to induce differentiation of skin-based stem cells. Huelsken’s group showed that retinoids like vitamin A can upregulate HOXA5 and antagonize the mechanism in colon cancer stem cells that staunch its expression.

In a mouse colon cancer model system, treatment with retinoids not only blocked progression of the tumors, but normalized the tissue. The activation of the expression of the HOXA5 gene eliminated cancer stem cells and prevented metastasis in live animals. These results were then faithfully recapitulated in samples from actual patients.

From this study, it seems that screening tumors for the absence of HOXA5 expression is a relatively easy way to determine if a patient’s colon cancer will respond to treatment with vitamin A. Treatment with vitamin A or other retinoids might not only prove effective against colon cancer, but also as a preventive measure in high-risk patients.