Stem Cell Gene Therapy for Sickle Cell Disease Moves Toward Clinical Trials

UCLA stem cell researchers and “gene jockeys” have successfully proven the efficacy of using genetically engineered hematopoietic (blood cell-making) stem cells from a patient’s own bone marrow to treat sickle-cell disease (SCD).

In a study led by Donald Kohn, professor of pediatrics and microbiology at the UCLA Eli & Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine & Stem Cell Research, an “anti-sickling” gene was introduced into the hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) from patients with SCD. Because the HSCs divide continuously throughout the life of the individual, all the blood cells they make will possess the anti-sickling gene and will therefore no sickle. This breakthrough gene therapy technique is scheduled to begin clinical trials by early 2014.

SCD results from a specific mutation in the beta-globin gene. Beta-globin is one of the two proteins that makes the multisubunit protein hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a four-subunit protein that ferries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues and carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs. It is tightly packed into each red blood cell.

The structure of hemoglobin, each subunit is in a different color.
The structure of hemoglobin, each subunit is in a different color.

Hemoglobin has a very high affinity for oxygen when oxygen concentrations are high, but a low affinity for oxygen when oxygen concentrations are low. Therefore, hemoglobin does a very good job of binding oxygen when it is in the lungs, where oxygen is plentiful, and a very good job of releasing oxygen in the tissues, where oxygen is not nearly as plentiful. This adaptive ability displayed by hemoglobin is the result of cooperativity between the four polypeptide chains that compose hemoglobin. Two of these polypeptide chains are alpha-globin proteins and the other two a beta globin proteins. Hemoglobin acts as though it is an alpha-beta dimer, or as though it is composed of two copies of an alpha-globin.beta-globin pair. The interactions between these polypeptide chains and the movement of the hemoglobin subunits relative to each other creates the biochemical properties of hemoglobin that are so remarkable.

A mutation in the beta-globin gene that substitutes a valine residue where there should be a glutamic acid residue (position number 6), creates a surface on the outside of the beta-globin subunit that does not like water, and when oxygen concentrations drops, the mutant hemoglobin molecule changes shape and this new water-hating surface becomes a site for protein polymerization.

Sickle cell hemoglobin

The mutant hemoglobin molecules for long, stiff chains that deform the red blood cells into a quarter moon-shaped structure that clogs capillaries.

Sickle cell RBCs


This new therapy seeks to correct the genetic mutation by inserting into the genome of the HSC that makes the abnormal red blood cells a gene for beta-globin that encodes a normal version of beta globin rather than a version of it that causes sickle-cell disease.  By introducing those engineered HSCs back into the bone marrow of the SCD patient, the engineered HSCs will make normal red blood cells that do not undergo sickling under conditions of low oxygen concentration.

Dr. Kohn noted that the results from his research group “demonstrate that our technique of lentiviral transduction is capable of efficient transfer and consistent expression of an effective anti-sickling beta-globnin gene in human SCD bone marrow progenitor cells, which improved the physiologic parameters of the resulting red blood cells.” Dr. Kohn’s statement may lead the reader to believe that this was done in a human patient, but that is not the case.  All this work was done in culture and in laboratory animals.

Kohn and his co-workers showed that in laboratory experiments, genetically engineered HSCs from SCD patients produced new non-sickled blood cells at a rate that would effectively allow SCD patients to show significant clinical improvement.  These new red blood cells also survived longer than those made by the nonengineered SCD HSCs.  The in vitro success of this technique has convinced the US Food and Drug Administration to grant Kohn the right to conduct clinical trials in SCD patients by early next year.

SCD affects more than 90,000 patients in the US, but it most affects people of sub-saharan African descent.  As stated before, the mutation that causes SCD produces red blood cells that are stiff, long, and get stuck in the tiny blood vessels known as capillaries that feed organs.  SCD causes multi-organ dysfunction and failure and can lead to death.


Treatment of SCD include bone marrow transplants, but immunological rejection of such transplants remains a perennial problem.   The success rate of bone marrow transplants is low and it is typically restricted to those patients with very severe disease who are on the verge of dying.

If Kohn’s clinical trials are successful, this stem cell-based treatment will hopefully become the gold standard for treatment of patients with SCD.  One potential problem with this technique is the use of lentiviral vectors to introduce a new gene into the HSCs.  Because lentiviruses are retroviruses, they insert their DNA into the genome of the host cells.  Such insertions can produce mutations, and it will be incumbent on Kohn and his colleagues to carefully screen each transformed HSC line to ensure that the insertion is not problematic and that the transformed cells are not sick or potentially tumorous.  However, such a vector is necessary in order to ensure permanent residence of the newly-introduced gene.

Even with these caveats, Kohn’s SCD treatment should go forward, and we wish all the best to Dr. Kohn, his team, and to the patients treated in this trial.

Directly Programming Skin Cells to Become Blood-Making Stem Cells

Within our bones lies a spongy, ribbon-like material called bone marrow.  Bone marrow is home to several different populations of stem cells, but the star of the stem cell show in the bone marrow are the hematopoietic stem cells or blood-making stem cells.   When a patient receives a bone marrow transplant these are the stem cells that are transferred, take up residence in the new bone marrow, and begin making new red and white blood cells for the patient.  Because bone marrow is such a precious commodity from a clinical standpoint, finding a way to make more of it is essential.

Hematopoiesis from Pluripotent Stem Cell

A new report from scientists at Mt Sinai Hospital in New York suggest that the transfer of specific genes into skin fibroblasts can reprogram mature, adult cells into hematopoietic stem cells that look and function exactly like the ones normally found within our bone marrow.

A research team at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai led by Kateri Moore screen a panel of 18 different genes for their ability to induce blood-forming activity when transfected into fibroblasts. Kateri and others discovered that a combination four different genes (GATA2, GFI1B, cFOS, and ETV6) is sufficient to generate blood vessel precursors with the subsequent appearance of hematopoietic stem cells. These cells expressed several known hematopoietic stem cell surface proteins (CD34, Sca1 and Prominin1/CD133).

Reprogramming of fibroblasts to HSCs

“The cells that we grew in a Petri dish are identical in gene expression to those found in the mouse embryo and could eventually generate colonies of mature blood cells,” said Carlos Filipe Pereira, first author of this paper and a postdoctoral research fellow in Moore’s laboratory.

The combination of gene factors that we used was not composed of the most obvious or expected proteins,” said Ihor Lemischka, a colleague of Dr. Moore at Mt. Sinai Hospital.  “Many investigators have been trying to grow hematopoietic stem cells from embryonic stem cells, but this process has been problematic.  Instead, we used mature mouse fibroblasts, pick the right combination of proteins, and it worked.”

According to Pereira, there is a rather critical shortage of suitable donors for blood stem cells transplants.  Bone marrow donors are currently necessary to meet the needs of patients suffering from blood diseases such as leukemia, aplastic anemia, lymphomas, multiple myeloma and immune deficiency disorders.  “Programming of hematopoietic stem cells represents an exciting alternative,” said Pereira.

“Dr. Lemischka and I have been working together for over 20 years in the fields of hematopoiesis and stem cell biology,” said Kateri Moore.  “It is truly exciting to be able to grow these blood forming cells in a culture dish and learn so much from them.  We have already started applying this new approach to human cells and anticipate similar success.”

Stem Cells to Make Red Blood Cells and Platelets in Culture

A collaborative study between Boston University School of Public Health and researchers at Boston Medical Center has used induced pluripotent stem cells to make unlimited numbers of human red blood cells and platelets in culture.

This finding could potentially reduce the need for blood donations to treat patients who require blood transfusions. Such research could also help researchers examine fresh and new therapeutic targets in order to treat blood diseases such a sickle-cell anemia.

The lead scientist on this project was George Murphy, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Boston University. Murphy’s main collaborator was David Sherr, professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Medicine and the Boston University School of Public Health.

Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs are made from adult cells by applying genetic engineering technology to the adult cells that introduces genes into them. The introduction of four specific genes de-differentiates the adult cells into pluripotent stem cells that can, potentially, differentiate into any adult cell type. This makes iPSCs powerful tools for research and potential therapeutic agents for regenerative medicine.

In this study, Murphy and others used iPSCs from the CreM iPS Cell Bank and exposed them to a battery of different growth factors in order to push them to differentiate into different adult cell types. They were looking for the precise cocktail to differentiate iPSCs into red blood cells, since they wanted to further study red blood cell development in detail.

One group of compounds given to the set of iPSCs were molecules that activate “aryl hydrocarbon” receptors. Aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AHRs) play important roles in the expansion of hematopoietic stem cells, which make blood cells, since antagonism of AHRs promotes expansion of hematopoietic stem cells (see AE Boitano et al.,Science 10 September 2010: Vol. 329 no. 5997 pp. 1345-1348). In this case, however, Murphy and his colleagues observed a dramatic increase in the production of functional red blood cells and platelets in a short period of time. THis suggests that the ARH is important for normal blood cell development.

Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor
Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor

“This finding has enabled us to overcome a major hurdle in terms of being able to produce enough of these cells to have a potential therapeutic impact both in the lab and, down the line, in patients,” said Murphy. “Additionally, our work suggests that AHR has a very important biological function in how blood cells form in the body.”

“Patient-specific red blood cells and platelets derived from iPSC cells, which would solve problems related to immunogenicity and contamination, could potentially be used therapeutically and decrease the anticipated shortage and the need for blood donation,” added Murphy.

iPS-derived cells have tremendous potential as model systems in which scientists can test and develop new treatments for disease, given that such diseases can be constructed in the laboratory. These iPSC-derived red blood cells could be used by malaria researchers, and IPSC-derived platelets could be used to explore cardiovascular disease and treatments for blood clotting disorders.

Because my mother died from myelodysplasia, this finding has some personal interest to me. Mom had a difficult blood type to match, since she had the Bombay blood type (H). Finding blood for her was a major tour de force, and as she received blood that was less and less well matched to her body, she suffered the ravages of poorly matched blood. A treatment of red blood cells made from IPSCs derived from her own cells might have extended her life and even improved her quality of life in her later years.

I look forward to this research eventually culminating in clinical trials.

RNA Molecule Protects Stem Cells During Inflammation

During inflammation and infection, bone marrow stem cells that make blood cells (so-called hematopoietic stem cells or HSCs) and progenitor cells are stimulated to proliferate and differentiate into mature immune cells. This especially the case for cells of the so-called “myeloid lineage.

Hematopoietic Stem Cells (HSCs) are able to differentiate into cells of two primary lineages, lymphoid and myeloid. Cells of the myeloid lineage develop during the process of myelopoiesis and include Granulocytes, Monocytes, Megakaryocytes, and Dendritic Cells. Circulating Erythrocytes and Platelets also develop from myeloid progenitor cells.

Hematopoiesis from Multipotent Stem Cell

Repeated infections and inflammation can deplete these cell populations, which leads to serious blood conditions and increased incidence of cancer.

A research team from the California Institute of Technology, led by Nobel Prize winner, David Baltimore, has discovered a small RNA molecule called microRNA-146a (miR-146a) that acts as a safety valve to protect HSCs during chronic inflammation. These findings also suggest that deficiencies for miR-146a might contribute to blood cancers and bone marrow failure.

Baltimore and his colleagues bred mice that lacked miR146a. MicroRNAs are very short RNA molecules (around 22 base pairs long) that regulate the activities of other genes. They control the expression of genes at the transcriptional and post-transcriptional level. In the case of miR146a(-) mice, whenever these mice were subjected to chronic inflammation, the total number and quality of their HSCs declined steadily. In contrast, miR-146a(+) mice were better able to maintain their levels of HSCs despite long-term inflammation.

The lead author of this work, Jimmy Zhao, said, “This mouse with genetic deletion of miR146a is a wonderful model with which to understand chronic inflammation-driven tumor formation and hematopoietic stem cell biology during chronic inflammation.”

Zhao also noted the surprising result that the deletion of one microRNA could cause such a profound and dramatic pathology. This underscores the critical and indispensable function of miR-146a in protecting the quality and longevity of HSCs. This work also establishes the connection between chronic inflammation and bone marrow failure and diseases of the blood.

Even more exciting is the prospect of synthesizing anti-inflammatory drugs that could treat blood disorders. In fact, it is possible that artificially synthesized miR146a might be an effective treatment if small RNAs can be effectively delivered to specific cells.

Zhao also noted the close resemblance that this mouse model has to the blood disorder human myelodysplastic syndrome or MDS. MDS is a form of pre-leukemia that causes severe anemia and a dependence on blood transfusions. MDS usually leads to acute myeloid leukemia. Further study of Zhao and Baltimore’s miR146a(-) mouse might lead to a better understanding of MDS and potential new treatments for MDS.

David Baltimore, senior author of this paper, said, “This study speaks of the importance of keeping chronic inflammation in check and provides a good rationale for broad use of safer and more effective anti-inflammatory molecules. If we can understand what cell types and proteins are critically important in chronic-inflammation-driven tumor formation and stem cell exhaustion, we can potentially design better and safer drugs to intervene.”

See Jimmy L Zhao, Dinesh S Rao, Ryan M O’Connell, Yvette Garcia-Flores, David Baltimore. MicroRNA-146a acts as a guardian of the quality and longevity of hematopoietic stem cells in mice.  DOI: May 21, 2013.  Cite as eLife 2013;2:e00537.

Postscript: This paper is especially meaningful to me because my mother died of MDS. The fact that a better model system for MDS has been established is an essential first step in finding a treatment for this killer disease.

Discarded White Blood Cells Induce Relocation of Blood Stem Cells

Researchers at the Fundación Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares or CNIC in Madrid, Spain have discovered that the clearance of the white blood cells called neutrophils induces the release of blood cell making stem cells into the bloodstream.

Our blood consists of a liquid component known as plasma and cells collectively known as “formed elements.” Formed elements include red blood cells and a whole encore of white blood cells. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin that ferry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. White blood cells come in two flavors: granulocytes, which contain granules, and agranulocytes, which are devoid of granules.

Granulocytes are a subgroup of white blood cells characterized by the presence of cytoplasmic granules. Granulocytes are formed in the bone marrow and can be classified as basophils, eosinophils, or neutrophils. These particular cell types are named according to their distinct staining characteristics using hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) histological preparations. Granules in basophils stain dark blue, eosinophilic components stain bright red, and neutrophilic components stain a neutral pink.


The most abundant white blood cells is known as a neutrophil. Neutrophils comprise 50-70% of all white blood cells and are a critical component of the immune system. When immature, neutrophils have a distinct band-shaped nucleus that changes into a segmented nucleus following maturation. Neutrophils are normally in circulating blood, but they migrate to sites of infection via chemotaxis under the direction of molecules such as Leukotriene B4. The main function of neutrophils is to destroy microorganisms and foreign particles by phagocytosis.

Granulocytes-blood smear

Because neutrophils are packed with granules that are toxic to microorganisms and our own cells, damaged neutrophils can spill a plethora of pernicious chemicals into our bodies. To prevent neutrophils from aging and becoming a problem, they live hard and die young. in the vicinity of 1011 neutrophils are eliminated every day. They are rapidly replaced, however, and the means of replacement includes stem cell mobilization from the bone marrow to the bloodstream.

Workers in the laboratory of Andrés Hidalgo have discovered what happens to the discarded neutrophils. Earlier work in mice showed that injections of dead or dying neutrophils increase the number of circulating blood cell-making stem cells. Therefore, something about dead neutrophils causes the hematopoietic stem cells to move from the bone marrow to the bloodstream. By following marked, dying neutrophils, Hidalgo and his coworkers showed that the neutrophils went to the bone marrow to die. While in the bone marrow, the dying neutrophils were phagocytosed (gobbled up) by special cells called macrophages.

Once these bone marrow-located macrophages phagocytose aged neutrophils, they begin to signal to hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow, and these signals drive them to move from the bone marrow to the bloodstream to replenish the neutrophil population.

Hidalgo admits that even though his research has produced some unique answers to age-old questions, it also poses almost as many questions as it answers. For example, Hidalgo and his colleagues showed that neutrophils follow a circadian or day/night rhythm and this has implications for diseases. For instance, the vast majority of heart attacks are in the morning. Does this have something to do with neutrophil aging cycles?

“Our study shows that stem cells are affected by day/night cycles thanks to this cell recycling . It is possible that the malign stem cells that cause cancer use this mechanism to relocate, for example, during metastasis,” said Hidalgo.

Daily changes in neutrophil function could be part of the reason that acute cardiovascular and inflammatory events such as heart attack, sepsis or stroke tend to occur during particular times of the day.

“Given that this new discovery describes fundamental processes in the body that were unknown before, it will now be possible to interpret the alterations to certain physiological patterns that occur in many diseases,” Hidalgo said.

See Cell 2013; 153(5): 1025 DOI:10.1016/j.cell.2013.04.040.

The Surprising Ability of Blood Stem Cells to Respond to Emergencies

A research team from Marseille, France has revealed an unexpected role for hematopoietic stem cells (the cells that make blood cells): not only do these cells continuously renew our blood cells, but in emergencies these cells can make white blood cells on demand. that help the body deal with inflammation and infection. This stem cell-based activity could be utilized to protect against infection in patients who are undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

The research team that discovered this previously unknown property of hematopoietic stem cells were from INSERM, CNRS and MDC led by Michael Sieweke of the Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille Luminy and the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine, Berlin-Buch.

Cells in our blood feed, clean, and defend our tissues, but their lifespan is limited. The life expectancy of a red blood cell rarely exceeds three months, our platelets die after ten days and the vast majority of our white blood cells survive only a few days.

Therefore, our bodies must produce replacements for these dying cells in a timely manner and in the right quantities and proportions. Blood cells replacement is the domain of the hematopoietic stem cells, which are nested in the bone marrow; that soft tissue inside long bones of the chest, spine, pelvis, upper leg and shoulder. Bone marrow produces and releases billions of new cells into out blood every day. To do this, hematopoietic stem cells must not only divide but their progeny must also differentiate into specialized cells, such as white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and so on.

For several years, researchers have been interested in how the process of differentiation and specialization is triggered in stem cell progeny. Sieweke and his colleagues discovered in previous work that hematopoietic stem cell progeny are not preprogrammed to assume a particular cell fate, but respond to environmental cues that direct them to become one cell type or another.

Nevertheless, it is still unclear how stem cells respond during emergencies? How are hematopoietic stem cells able to meet the demand for white blood cells during an infection? Recently, the answer was considered clear: the stem cells neither sensed nor responded to the signals sent to induce their progeny to differentiate into particular cell types. They merely proliferated and their progeny responded to the available signals and differentiated into the necessary cell fates. However, Sieweke’s research team has found that rather than being insensitive to these inductive signals meant for their progeny, hematopoietic stem cells perceive these environmental signals and, in response to them, manufacture the cells that are most appropriate for the danger faced by the individual.

Dr. Sandrine Sarrazin, INSERM researcher and co-author of the publication, said, “We have discovered that a biological molecule produced in large quantities by the body during infection or inflammation directly shows stem cells the path to take.”

Sieweke added, “Now that we have identified this signal, it may be possible in the future to accelerate the production of these cells in patients facing the risk of acute infection.” He continued: “This is the case for 50,000 patients worldwide each year who are totally defenseless against infections just after bone marrow transplantation. Thanks to M-CSF [monocyte-colony stimulating factor], it may be possible to stimulate the production of useful cells while avoiding to produce those that can inadvertently attack the body of these patients. They could therefore protect against infections while their immune system is being reconstituted.”

To reach their conclusions the team had to measure the change of state in each cell. This was a terrifically difficult challenge since the stem cells in question are very rare in the bone marrow: only one cell in 10,000 in the bone marrow of a mouse. Furthermore, the hematopoietic stem cells are, by appearance, indistinguishable from their progeny, the hematopoietic progenitor cells. Therefore, this experiment was tedious and difficult, but it proved that M-CSF could instruct single hematopoietic stem cells to differentiate into the monocyte lineage.

The clinical use of M-CSF will hopefully follow in the near future, but for now, this is certainly an exciting finding that may lead to clinical trials and applications in the future.

Rejuvenating the Blood of Older People With New Stem Cells

Like it or not, the blood of young people and older people is different. Can the blood of an older person be rejuvenated and made young again?

In an article published recently by the scientific journal Blood, a research group at Lund University in Sweden details a series of experiments in which they rejuvenated the blood of mice by reversing, or re-programming, the blood cell-making stem cells.

Stem cell populations throughout the body form and replace cells in the body and help repair organs. Stem cells have the capability to divide an unlimited number of times, and when they divide, one cell remains a stem cell and the other matures into another cell type needed by the body.

Martin Wahlestedt, a doctoral student in stem cell biology at the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University, and principal author of the article explained, “Our ageing process is a consequence of changes in our stem cells over time.” Wahlestedt continued, “Some of the changes are irreversible, for example damage to the stem cells’ DNA, and some could be gradual changes, known as epigenetic changes, that are not necessarily irreversible, even if they are maintained through multiple cell divisions. When the stem cells are re-programmed, as we have done, the epigenetic changes are cancelled.”

Shinya Yamanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year for this very discovery.

Blood composition changes as we age. For example, blood from a young person contains a certain mix of B- and T-lymphocytes and myeloid cells, but in older people, according to Wahlestedt, “In older people, the number of B- and T-lymphocytes falls, while the number of myeloid cells increases.” Therefore, when an elderly person is affected by leukemia, the cancer usually originates in the myeloid cells, since the elderly have more myeloid cells. Being able to refurbish the blood, as Martin and his colleagues have done in their mouse studies, therefore, presents interesting possibilities for future treatment.

“There is a lot of focus on how stem cells could be used in different treatments, but all that they are routinely used for in clinical work today is bone marrow transplants for diseases where the blood and immune systems have to be regenerated”, said Martin Wahlestedt, continuing:  “A critical factor that gives an indication of whether the procedure is going to work or not is the age of the bone marrow donor. By reversing the development of the stem cells in the bone marrow, it may be possible to avoid negative age-related changes.”

Even if the composition of the blood in old and young mice is remarkably like that in young and elderly people, Martin Wahlestedt stressed that at this stage; the technology is only at the basic research stage and is far from a functioning treatment. The research group is pleased with the results, because they indicate that it may not primarily be damage to DNA that causes blood to age, but rather the reversible epigenetic changes.