Repairing Nerves Using Exosomes to Hijack Cell-Cell Communication

Biomedical engineers from Tufts University have discovered a new protocol that can induce mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) derived from bone marrow to differentiate into neuron-like cells by treating them with exosomes from cultured cells.

PC12 cells are neuron-like progenitor cells derived from rats that can be successfully grown in culture. The Tufts team, led by Qiaobing Xu, found that exosomes extracted from cultured PC12 cells at various stages of differentiation could drive MSCs to differentiate into neuron-like cells.

Exosomes are very small, hollow particles that a wide range of cells types secrete. These tiny vehicles contain proteins, RNA, and other small molecules, and serve as a vehicle for communication between cells. In the nervous system, exosomes guide the direction of nerve growth, and they control nerve connection and direct peripheral nerve regeneration.

Xu and his team showed that these exosomes contain microRNAs (miRNAs), which a small RNA molecules that regulate gene expression and are known to play a role in neuronal differentiation. They hypothesized that these miRNAs activate neuron-specific genes in the MSCs that receive them and this is the reason these cells begin their journey towards differentiating into neurons.

“In combination with synthetic nanoparticles, we may ultimately be able to use these identified miRNAs or proteins to make synthetic exosomes, thereby avoiding the need to use any kind of neural progenitor cell line to induce neuron growth,” said Xu.

This work was published in PLoS ONE 2015; 10(8): e135111 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135111.

Closing the Door on the STAP Episode

Last year, a group of Japanese researchers, led by scientists from the high-regarded RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, reported a break-through in stem cell technology. Their so-called STAP or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells could be derived from mature, adult cells by exposing those cells to stressful conditions. Even though the papers that reported these advances were published in the prestigious journal Nature, immediately, people found problems in the papers that could not be easily resolved. Several laboratories tried to replicate the STAP results, with no success. The papers were eventually retracted and an internal investigation by the RIKEN Center also suggested that foul play might have been at work. Amidst all this, a question that hung in the air was this, “Was there something to the original discoveries but it was overstated?”

That question has now been definitely answered in the negative, thus closing the door for good on this whole sordid affair. Two papers were published on 23 September in the journal Nature, which was the same journal that published the original, ill-fated papers early last year that showed that STAP cells should be called NE (never existed) cells.

The original STAP papers were published in January 2014 by a team led by researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, in collaboration with scientists from Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. These two papers claimed that embryonic-like stem cells could be produced by exposing adult body cells to stress, such as acidic conditions or physical pressure. These papers dubbed their technology “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency,” or STAP. Unfortunately, other scientists quickly discovered problems with data in the research. These problems then generated an investigation, and these papers were eventually retracted.

The paper retraction, however, did not answer the nagging questions as to whether or not the STAP procedure might have worked, and where the pluripotent stem cells labelled STAP in the RIKEN laboratory came from.

Such questions were addressed by seven teams in four countries who tried to replicate the procedure under various conditions (De Los Angeles, A. et al. Nature (2015). These teams collaborated to generate 133 attempts to produce STAP cells, and all of these attempts failed. One of these teams was led by researchers at Harvard Medical School who had worked with one of the original STAP co-authors. In this laboratory, cells were engineered to express a fluorescent protein when a gene related to pluripotency was expressed. When cells were exposed to stressful conditions, they did find some fluorescence, which suggested that pluripotency genes were expressed when cells were subjected to such conditions. However further testing showed this result to be an artifact since cells can naturally emit light; a phenomenon known as autofluorescence. Six other groups also observed autofluorescence in stressed cells, but no convincing evidence of STAP conversion.

A group of RIKEN researchers that did not include any authors of the original STAP papers analyzed the genomes of purported STAP cell lines that had be derived at the CDB. These scientists discovered multiple instances of contradictory data that probably resulted from contamination of purported STAP cells by other known cell types. The RIKEN group’s analyses showed that all remaining purported STAP stem cell lines, for example, were genetically identical to embryonic stem cell lines that already existed in the laboratory.

Additionally the “chimeric” mice that were reportedly produced by injecting STAP cells into the embryo of a developing mouse were found to have been produced by injecting pre-existing embryonic cell lines, rather than STAP cells, into the embryo. The production of chimeric mouse embryos is an experiment that definitively shows that particular cells are truly pluripotent.

Cell contamination also explains one of the most puzzling features of the original work, and that has to do with why the alleged STAP cells were reported to be capable of forming placental tissue, which is something that embryonic stem cells are not able to do (De Los Angeles, A. et al. Nature 525, 469–478 (2015)). These most recent analyses show that mixtures of trophoblast stem cells (which form the placenta in a developing embryo) were mixed with embryonic stem cells and that this mixture was used in the mouse chimeric experiments, leading to the production of mouse placental and embryonic tissue.

Stem-cell scientist Rudolf Jaenisch of the Massachusetts of Technology in Cambridge, who was part of the replication efforts, originally suggested in April 2014 to Nature’s news team that contamination was the reason for the results in the STAP papers. Unfortunately, he did not have evidence at the time for his hypothesis, but this most recent work has vindicated Jaenisch’s hypothesis.

A lingering question is how these embryonic stem cells and trophoblast stem cells came to replace purported STAP cells when the chimeric mouse experiments were performed. So-called cross-examination, which is the accidental contamination of one cell culture by another type of cell, is a well-known problem in cell culture experiments and biological research that depends on cultured cells. However, to properly explain the results in the original STAP papers, multiple independent contamination events must be invoked. “It is very difficult to reconcile the data with simple contamination or careless mislabeling,” says stem-cell scientist George Daley at Harvard Medical School. Unfortunately, requests for clarifying comments from corresponding authors of the original papers went unanswered.

In a review article published in Nature, Daley, Jaenisch argue that all new reports of new types of pluripotency should be subjected to rigorous “forensic” analysis that examines the genomes of the cells under consideration before publication. According to the authors, besides the failed STAP papers, “numerous groups are reporting ever more nuanced states of pluripotency.” In particular, the article focuses on genomic analyses, which are enabled by advances in sequencing technology, that will help evaluate such cell types.

Daley says that these experiments bring some well-desired closure to the STAP. He ended, however, with a warning to scientists who are looking for ways to reprogram cells to an embryonic-like state: “We will all be a tad more cautious in evaluating such claims.”

Elabela, A New Human Embryonic Stem Cell Growth Factor

When embryonic stem cell lines are made, they are traditionally grown on a layer of “feeder cells” that secrete growth factors that keep the embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from differentiating and drive them to grow. These feeder cells are usually irradiated mouse fibroblasts that coat the culture dish, but do not divide. Mouse ESCs can be grown without feeder cells if the growth factor LIF is provided in the medium. LIF, however, is not the growth factor required by human ESCs, and therefore, designing culture media for human ESCs to help them grow without feeder cells has proven more difficult.

Having said that, several laboratories have designed media that can be used to derive human embryonic stem cells without feeder cells. Such a procedure is very important if such cells are to be used for therapeutic purposes, since animal cells can harbor difficult to detect viruses and unusual sugars on their cell surfaces that can also be transferred to human ESCs in culture. These unusual sugars can elicit a strong immune response against them, and for this reason, ESCs must be cultivated or derived under cell-free conditions. However, to design good cell-free culture media, we must know more about the growth factors required by ESCs.

To that end, Bruno Reversade from The Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore and others have identified a new growth factor that human ESCs secrete themselves. This protein, ELABELA (ELA), was first identified as a signal for heart development. However, Reversade’s laboratory has discovered that ELA is also abundantly secreted by human ESCs and is required for human ESCs to maintain their ability to self-renew.

Reversade and others deleted the ELA gene with the CRISPR/Cas9 system, and they also knocked the expression of this gene down in other cells with small interfering RNAs. Alternatively, they also incubated human ESCs with antibodies against ELA, which neutralized ELA and prevented it from binding to the cell surface. However Ela was inhibited, the results were the same; reduced ESC growth, increased amounts of cell death, and loss of pluripotency.

How does ELA signal to cells to grow? Global signaling studies of growing human ESCs showed that ELA activates the PI3K/AKT/mTORC1 signaling pathway, which has been show in other work to be required for cell survival. By activating this pathway, ELA drives human ESCs through the cell-cycle progression, activates protein synthesis, and inhibits stress-induced apoptosis.

fx1 (2)

Interestingly, INSULIN and ELA have partially overlapping functions in human ESC culture medium, but only ELA seems to prime human ESCs toward the endoderm lineage. In the heart, ELA binds to the Apelin receptor APLNR. This receptor, however, is not expressed in human ESCs, which suggests that another receptor, whose identity remains unknown at the moment, binds ELA in human ESCs.

Thus ELA seems to act through an alternate cell-surface receptor, is an endogenous secreted growth factor in human

This paper was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Umbilical Cord Blood Contains c-kit+ Cells that Can Differentiate into Heart-like Cells

Bone contains a wide variety of stem cells whose potential are only beginning to be tapped. One cell population possesses a cell surface protein called c-kit, and these c-kit+ progenitor cells seem to support myocardial regeneration. Do c-kit+ cells from umbilical cord blood have the same capacity?

Luciana Teofili from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, Italy and her colleagues purified c-kit+ cells from umbilical cord blood by means of magnetic beads that were coated with c-kit-binding antibodies. Teofili and others induced heart muscle differentiation in these cells with several different protocols. Then the expression of cardiac markers (GATA4, GATA6, β-myosin heavy chain, α-sarcomeric actin and cardiac Troponin T) was investigated, and whole-cell current and voltage-clamp recordings were performed.

The c-kit+ cells from umbilical cord blood showed a rather immature gene profile, and by themselves, they did not differentiate into heart muscle-like cells in culture. In contrast, if whole mononuclear cells from umbilical cord blood were subjected to the same treatment, several if the employed protocols produced large, adherent cells that expressed several heart muscle-specific genes and exhibited an excitability much like that of heart muscle cells.

Formation of these heart muscle-like cells was prevented if the c-kit+ cells were removed from the other cells. Tracking studies showed that the c-kit+ cells were the ones that differentiated into heart muscle-like cells, but they only did so when they were together with c-kit– cells.

Thus umbilical cord blood contains progenitors endowed with the ability to differentiate into heart muscle-like cells. The cells with this potential reside in the c-kit+ fraction but they require the presence of abundant accessory cells to differentiate properly.

These preliminary observations suggest that it is a good idea to consider the storage of the umbilical cord blood of patients with prenatal diagnosis of congenital heart diseases. Such conditions might be potentially amenable to myocardial regenerative therapies with umbilical blood-based stem cells.

This paper was published in the journal Cytotherapy, but it must be said that the evidence that these cells differentiated into heart muscle cells was not completely convincing.

Rejuvenation Factor Discovered in Human Eggs

When the egg is fertilized by a sperm, it is transformed into a single-celled embryo or zygote that is metabolically active and driven to divide and develop. The egg, on the other hand, is a rather inert cell from a metabolic perspective. What is it in the egg that allows it to transform into something so remarkably different?

A new study by Swea-Ling Khaw and others in the laboratory of Ng Shyh-Chang at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) has elucidated two main factors that help rejuvenate the egg and might also help reprogram adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Eggs express large amounts of a protein called Tcl1. Tcl1 suppresses the function of old, potentially malfunctioning mitochondria (the structure in cells that makes the energy for the cell). This suppression prevents damaged mitochondria from adversely affecting the egg’s transformation from into an embryo.

Remember also that if an adult cell is fused to an egg, it can cause the egg to divide and form an early embryo. Therefore, the egg cytoplasm is able to reprogram adult cells as well, and Tcl1 seems to play a role in this reprogramming capability as well.

In a screen for genes that are important to the reprogramming process, Shyh-Chang’s laboratory isolated two genes, Tcl1 and Tcl1b1. Further investigation of these two proteins showed that Tcl1 affects mitochondria by inhibiting a mitochondrial protein called polynucleotide phosphorylase (PNP). By locking PNP in the cytoplasm rather than the mitochondria, the growth and function of the mitochondria are inhibited. Tcl1b1 activates the Akt kinase, which stimulate cell growth, survival, and metabolism.

In a review article in the journal Stem Cells and Development, Anaïs Wanet and others explain that energy production in pluripotent stem cells is largely by means of glycolysis, which occurs in the cytoplasm. Mitochondria in pluripotent stem cells are immature subfunctional. When adult cells are reprogrammed into iPSCs, mitochondria function is shut down and energy production is largely derived from glycolysis. When the cells differentiate, the mitochondria are remodeled and become functional once again. Tcl1 is the protein that help shut down the mitochondria so that the pluripotent state can ensue and Tcf1b1 gears up the pluripotent stem cells to grow and divide at will.

Given this remarkable finding, can Tcf1 help make better iPSCs? Almost certainly, but how does one use this important factor to make better iPSCs?  That awaits further experimentation.  Additionally, this finding might also help aging and infertility issues as well. Hopefully this work by Shyh-Chang and her colleagues will lead to many more fruitful and exciting experiments.

Differential Immunogenicity of Cells Derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology has raised the possibility that patient-specific pluripotent stem cells may become a renewable source of a patient’s own cells for regenerative therapy without the concern of immune rejection. However, the immunogenicity of autologous human iPSC (hiPSC)-derived cells is not well understood.

Using a humanized mouse model (denoted Hu-mice) with a functional human immune system, Yang Xu and his colleagues from UC San Diego has shown that most teratomas or tumors formed by human iPSCs were readily recognized by immune cells and rejected. However, when these human iPSCs were differentiated into smooth muscle cells or retinal pigmented epithelial cells, the results were rather different. Human iPSC-derived smooth muscle cells appear to be highly immunogenic, but human iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells are tolerated by the immune system, even when transplanted outside the eye.


When Xu and others examined these results more closely, they discovered that this differential immunogenicity is due to the abnormal expression of cell surface proteins in hiPSC-derived Smooth Muscle Cells, but not in hiPSC-derived RPEs.

These findings support the feasibility of developing hiPSC-derived RPEs for treating macular degeneration. They also show that iPSC lines must be individually screened to determine if their derivatives are recognized by the patient’s immune system as foreign.

These results were published in Cell Stem Cell.

Reprogramming Pluripotent Cells into Totipotent Cells

With the advent of the Nobel Prize-winning research of Shinya Yamanaka, scientists are presently able to reprogram mature, adult cells into pluripotent cells. These “induced pluripotent stem cells” or iPSCs are made by genetically engineering adult cells and culturing them in special conditions. These iPSCs can also be differentiated, potentially, into every cell type in the adult human body. Now Maria-Elena Torres-Padilla‘s research team is trying to push the limits of stem cell science even further.

Torres-Padilla and her coworker successfully made “totipotent” cells, which have the same characteristics as those of the earliest embryonic stages, from pluripotent stem cells. This work was the result of a fruitful collaboration between Juanma Vaquerizas from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine (Münster, Germany), and Maria-Elena Torres-Padilla and her colleagues at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology (IGBMC) at Illkirch, France. This work has been published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Soon after fertilization, the embryo begins it first rounds of cell division, which is known as the “early cleavage” stages. At this early stage of development, when the embryo is composed of only 1 or 2 cells, the “blastomeres” or cells of the embryo are “totipotent.” Totipotent means that these blastomeres can produce an entire embryo, or the placenta and umbilical cord that accompany it.

Early Cleavage Stages

After the 12-16-cell stage, the embryo undergoes a complex process called “compaction,” in which the cells become very tightly bound together and two populations of cells become apparent.

Post-Compaction Embryo

Post-Compaction Embryo

The cells on the inside, which give rise to the cells of the “inner cell mass” (ICM), and outside cells, which give rise to the “trophectoderm” that produce the placenta. Trophectoderm cells express a specific set of genes; Yap1, Tead4, Gata3, Cdx2, Eomes and Elf5. The ICM generates the embryo proper and the ICM cells express a cadre of genes specific to these cells; Oct4, FGF4, Sall4, Sox2 and Nanog. These ICM cells are no longer totipotent, but have become “pluripotent,” can differentiate into any tissue, but they cannot alone produce the placenta or a whole embryo. As development progresses, these pluripotent cells continue to specialize and form the various tissues of the body through the process of cellular differentiation.

While it is possible to make pluripotent cells from mature, adult cells, Torres-Padilla and her coworkers have studied the characteristics of totipotent cells of the embryo and discovered factors capable of inducing a totipotent-like state.

When they cultured pluripotent stem cells in culture, a small percentage of totipotent cells appear spontaneously. Such cells are called “2C-like cells,” after their resemblance to the 2-cell stage embryo. Torres-Padilla and her team compared these 2C-like cells to totipotent cells in early embryos in order to determine their common characteristics and the features that distinguish them from pluripotent cells. In particular, Torres-Padilla and her collaborators found that the chromosomes of totipotent cells were less condensed and that the amount of the protein complex CAF1 was diminished. CAF1 (Chromatin Assembly Factor 1) is a protein complex that helps assemble histone proteins onto DNA.


Histones act as tiny spools around which DNA is wound. Because DNA is negatively charged, and histones are positively charged, the two have a natural affinity for each other. CAF1 binds to histones and regulates the association of histones with DNA in order to ensure that the assembly of histones on DNA is and orderly process. Histones wind DNA into a tight structure called “chromatin.” CAF1, as it turns out, is responsible for maintaining the pluripotent state by ensuring that the DNA remains properly wound around histones.


As an extension of this hypothesis, Torres-Padilla and her crew were able to induce a totipotent state by inactivating the expression of the CAF1 complex. CAF1 inactivation caused the chromatin of pluripotent cells to reform into a less condensed state, and this less condensed state was conducive to totipotency.

These data provide new avenues for understanding the nature of pluripotency, and could increase the efficiency of reprogramming somatic cells to be used for applications in regenerative medicine,