Stephen Hawking Visits UCLA Stem Cell Laboratory


Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

On Tuesday, Stephen Hawking toured a stem cell laboratory where scientists are studying ways to slow the progression of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurological disorder that has left the British cosmologist almost completely paralyzed.

After the visit, the 71-year-old Hawking urged doctors, nurses and staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to support the research.

Hawking recalled how he became depressed when he was diagnosed with the disease 50 years ago and initially didn’t see a point in finishing his doctorate. But his attitude changed when his condition didn’t progress as fast and he was able to concentrate on his studies.

“Every new day became a bonus,” he said.

The hospital last year received nearly $18 million from California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell institute to study the debilitating disease also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control the muscles. People gradually have more and more trouble breathing and moving as muscles weaken and waste away.

There’s no cure and no way to reverse the disease’s progression. Few people with ALS live longer than a decade.

Diagnosed at age 21 while a student at Cambridge University, Hawking has survived longer than most. He receives around-the-clock care, can only communicate by twitching his cheek, and relies on a computer mounted to his wheelchair to convey his thoughts in a distinctive robotic monotone.

A Cedars-Sinai patient who was Hawking’s former student spurred doctors to invite the physicist to glimpse their stem cell work.

“We decided it was a great opportunity for him to see the labs and for us to speak to one of the preeminent scientists in the world,” said Dr. Robert Baloh, who heads the hospital’s ALS program.

Cedar-Sinai scientists have focused on engineering stem cells to make a protein in hopes of preventing nerve cells from dying. The experiment so far has been done in rats. Baloh said he hopes to get governmental approval to test it in humans, which would be needed before any therapy can be approved.

Hawking is famous for his work on black holes and the origins of the universe. His is also famous for bringing esoteric physics concepts to the masses through his best-selling books including “A Brief History of Time,” which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Hawking titled his speech to Cedars-Sinai employees “A Brief History of Mine.”

Despite his diagnosis, Hawking has remained active. In 2007, he floated like an astronaut on an aircraft that creates weightlessness by making parabolic dives.

Doctors don’t know why some people with Lou Gehrig’s disease fare better than others. Dr. Baloh said he has treated patients who lived for 10 years or more.

“But 50 years is unusual, to say the least,” he said.

The Role of Astrocytes in Lou Gehring’s Disease


A study from Columbia University and Harvard University has uncovered a complex interplay between neurons and support cells known as astrocytes that contributes to the pathology of ALS. Such an intricate interplay complicates regenerative therapies for this disease.

In the spinal cord, a group of neurons called motor neurons extend their axons to skeletal muscles and provide the neural signals for the muscles to contract, which allows movement. Motor neurons also have associated support cells known as glial cells, and a specific group of glial cells known as astrocytes associate with motor neurons in the spinal cord.

Astrocytes are star-shaped cells that surround neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and they outnumber neurons 50:1. Astrocytes are very active in the central nervous system, and serve to maintain, support, and repair the nervous tissue that they serve, and are responsible, in large part, for the plasticity of the nervous system.

astrocytes1 (1)

Motor neurons die off during the course of ALS, which leads to paralysis and death within two to fives years of diagnosis. ALS also affects neurons in the brain and it completely robs the individual of the ability to initiate movement or even breathe. There is, at present, no cure and no life-prolonging treatment for ALS.

Data from the ALS Association group suggests that astrocytes in ALS patients go from supporting neurons to strangling them. According to Lucie Bruijn, the chief scientist at the ALS Association in Washington D.C.,, these results seem to “strengthen the case that astrocytes are central to the ALS disease process.” She continued: “Furthermore, the results are based on an exciting new disease model system, one that will allow us to test important hypotheses and search for new therapeutic targets.”

In a cell culture system of ALS, in which neurons derived from embryonic cells were co-cultured with normal and ALS astrocytes, Bruijn’s team found that gene expression patterns in those neurons associated with ALS astrocytes were abnormal. In this experiment, neurons derived from embryonic stem cells with co-cultured with normal and ALS affected astrocytes. In a time course experiment in which gene expression profiles were analyzed from the neurons after specific amounts of time, the gene expression patterns from the normal astrocytes co-cultured with neurons were compared with those of the ALS-affected astrocytes co-cultured with neurons. From these experiments, it became clear that the ALS-affected astrocytes did not communicate properly with the nearby neurons.

Even though neurons communicated with each other by means of the release of neurotransmitters, astrocytes and other glial cells also communicate with each other by means of the release of various molecules. This astrocyte-neuron communication maintains healthy neuron function. However, in the case of ALS, the neuron-astrocyte communication is “profoundly disrupted” and is disruption is not neuron dependent, since in this experiment, the neurons were normal. Without proper communication with their astrocytes, motor neurons the spinal cords of ALS patients are not able to function properly.

According to Bruijn, “This study points out several potential points for treatment intervention.” The protection of motor neurons is the goal, since the astrocytes seem to be doing little to protect and support the neurons and also might be hurting them.

An added bonus to this study is that when spinal cords from mice with a disease that shows some similarities to ALS have their gene expression profiles compared to these gene expression profiles observed in the cultured neurons, the results are remarkably similar. This shows that culture system does recapitulate what goes on in the spinal cord.

The next step is to show that the molecular abnormalities discovered in this system mimics those that occur in human disease. This publication utilized mouse cells, and the human disease, while similar, is not exactly the same.

Reprogramming Neurons into New Cells


Researchers from Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology have succeeded in reprogramming one type of neuron into a different type of neurons in a living animals.  Such an experiment has never been done before.  These researchers, Paola Arlotta and Caroline Rouaux said that their work “tells you that maybe the brain is not as immutable as we always thought, because at least during an early window of time one can reprogram the identity of one neuronal class into another”  Arlotta, an associate professor in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (SCRB).

Direct lineage reprogramming of differentiated cells within the body was first proven by the SCRB co-chair and Harvard Stem Cell Institute  (HSCI) co-director Doug Melton and colleagues five years ago.  Workers in Melton’s lab succeeded in reprogramming exocrine pancreatic cells directly into insulin-producing beta cells.  Now Arlotta and Rouaux now have shown that neurons can change too.  Their work has been published in the journal Nature Cell Biology

In their experiments, Arlotta and Rouaux targeted a group of neurons known as callosal projection neurons.  Collosal projection neurons connect the two hemispheres of the brain.  After specific treatments, the collosal projections neurons in this study were converted into corticofugal projection neurons.  The significance of corticofugal projection neurons are not lost on Arlotta and Rouaux because they are a type of corticospinal motor neuron, which is one of two populations of neurons destroyed in Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

To achieve such reprogramming of neuronal identity, the researchers inserted a gene for a transcription factor known as Fezf2 into the collosal neurons.  Fexf2 plays a central role in the development of corticospinal neurons in the embryo.  The collosal neurons retracted their connects to the other hemisphere and made connections with neurons in the lower layers of the cerebral cortex.

Luci Bruijn, a neuroscientist who was not directly involved in this work noted, “This discovery tells us again that the brain is a somehow flexible system and gives us more evidence that reprogramming neurons to take on new identities and, perhaps, that new functions are possible. For those working to treat neurodegenerative diseases, that is reassuring.”

This work did not take take place in a culture dish in a laboratory.  Instead it was done in the brains of living mice.  The mice were young, so it is still not certain if such reprogramming could occur in older animals or even humans.  If such reprogramming is possible, the implications for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases could be enormous.

“Neurodegenerative diseases typically affect a specific population of neurons, leaving many others untouched. For example, in ALS it is corticospinal motor neurons in the brain and motor neurons in the spinal cord, among the many neurons of the nervous system, that selectively die,” Arlotta said. “What if one could take neurons that are spared in a given disease and turn them directly into the neurons that die off? In ALS, if you could generate even a small percentage of corticospinal motor neurons, it would likely be sufficient to recover basic functioning.”

Bruijn said of this work, “Understanding the constraints and possibilities of nervous system development allows us to consider new experiments and new strategies for therapy development. The most immediate importance of this finding is likely to be in the laboratory, where it will help us understand more about how the nervous system may respond when neurons are injured as they are in ALS.”