Human STAP cells – Troubling Possibilities

Soon after the publication of this paper that adult mouse cells could be reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells simply by exposing them to acidic environments or other stresses , Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School has reported that he and his colleagues have demonstrated that this procedure works with human cells.

STAP cells or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells were derived by Vacanti and his Japanese collaborators last year. These new findings show that adult cells can be reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells without genetic engineering. However, this technique worked well in mouse cells, but it was not clear that it would work with human adult cells.

Vacanti and others shocked the world when they published their paper in the journal Nature earlier this year when they announced that adult cells in mice could be reprogrammed through exposure to stresses and proper culture conditions.

Now Vacanti has made good on his promise to test his protocol on human adult cells. In the photo below, provided by Vacanti, human adult cells were reprogrammed to a pluripotent state by exposing them to stresses, followed by growth in culture under specific conditions.

Human STAP cells
Human STAP cells

“If they can do this in human cells, it changes everything, said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technologies in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Such a procedure promises cheaper, faster, and potentially more flexible cells for regenerative medicine, cancer therapy and cell and tissue cloning.

Vacanti and his colleagues say they have taken human fibroblast cells and tested several environmental stressors on them to recreate human STAP cells. He will not presently disclose which particular stressors were applied, he says the resulting cells appear similar in form to the mouse STAP cells. His team is in the process of testing to see just how stem-cell-like these cells are.

According to Vacanti, the human cells took about a week to resemble STAP cells, and formed spherical clusters just like their mouse counterparts. Vacanti and his Harvard colleague Koji Kojima emphasized that these results are only preliminary and further analysis and validation is required.

Bioethical problems potentially emerge with STAP cells despite their obvious potential. The mouse cells that were derived and characterized by Vacanti’s group and his collaborators were capable of making placenta as well as adult cell types. This is different from embryonic stem cells, which can potentially form all adult cell types, but typically do not form placenta. Embryonic stem cells, therefore, are pluripotent, which means that they can form all adult cell types. However, the mouse STAP cells can form all embryonic and adult cell types and are, therefore, totipotent. Mouse STAP cells could form an entirely new mouse. While it is now clear if human STAP cells, if they in fact exist, have this capability, but if they do, they could potentially lead to human cloning.

Sally Cowley, who heads the James Martin Stem Cell Facility at the University of Oxford, said of Vacanti’s present experiments: “Even if these are STAP cells they may not necessarily have the same potential as mouse ones – they may not have the totipotency – which is one of the most interesting features of the mouse cells.”

However the only cells known to be naturally totipotent are in embryos that have only undergone the first couple of cell divisions immediately after fertilization. According to Cowley, any research that utilizes totipotent cells would have to be under very strict regulatory surveillance. “It would actually be ideal if the human cells could be pluripotent and not totipotent – it would make everyone’s life a lot easier,” she opined.

Cowley continued: “However, the whole idea that adult cells are so plastic is incredibly fascinating,” she says. “Using stem cells has been technically incredibly challenging up to now and if this is feasible in human cells it would make working with them cheaper, faster and technically a lot more feasible.”

This is all true, but Robert Lanza from Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Massachusetts, a scientist with whom I have often deeply disagreed, noted: “The word totipotent brings up all kinds of issues,” says Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Massachusetts. “If these cells are truly totipotent, and they are reproducible in humans then they can implant in a uterus and have the potential to be turned into a human being. At that point you’re entering into a right-to-life quagmire”

A quagmire indeed, for Vacanti has already talked about using these STAP cells to clone human embryos. Think of it: the creation of very young human beings just for the purpose of ripping them apart and using their cells for research or medicine. Would we allow this if the embryo were older; say the age of a toddler? No we would rightly condemn it as murder, but because the embryo is very young, that somehow counts against it. This is little more than morally grading the embryo according to astrology.

Therefore, whole Vacanti’s experiments are exciting and novel, they hold chilling possibilities. Lanza is right, and it is doubtful that scientists would show the same deference or sensitivities to the moral exigencies he has shown.


Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency Cells: Embryonic-Like Stem Cells Without Killing Embryos or Genetic Engineering

Embryonic stem cells have been the gold standard for pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent means capable of differentiating into one of many cell types in the adult body. Ever since James Thomson isolated the first human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998, scientists have dreamed of using embryonic stem cells to treat diseases in human patients.

However, deriving human embryonic stem cell lines requires the destruction or molestation of a human embryo, the smallest, youngest, and most vulnerable member of our community. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka and his colleges used genetic engineering techniques to make induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are very similar to embryonic stem cells in many ways. Unfortunately, the derivation of iPSCs introduces mutations into the cells.

Now, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), in Boston, in collaboration with the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, have demonstrated that any mature adult cell has the potential to be converted into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. Published in the January 30, 2014 issue of the journal Nature, this research team demonstrated in a preclinical model, a novel and unique way to reprogram cells. They called this phenomenon stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). Importantly, this process does not require the introduction of new outside DNA, which is required for the reprogramming process that produces iPSCs.

“It may not be necessary to create an embryo to acquire embryonic stem cells. Our research findings demonstrate that creation of an autologous pluripotent stem cell – a stem cell from an individual that has the potential to be used for a therapeutic purpose – without an embryo, is possible. The fate of adult cells can be drastically converted by exposing mature cells to an external stress or injury. This finding has the potential to reduce the need to utilize both embryonic stem cells and DNA-manipulated iPS cells,” said senior author Charles Vacanti, MD, chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine and Director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at BWH and senior author of the study. “This study would not have been possible without the significant international collaboration between BWH and the RIKEN Center,” he added.

The inspiration for this research was an observation in plant cells – the ability of a plant callus, which is made by an injured plant, to grow into a new plant. These relatively dated observations led Vacanti and his collaborators to suggest that any mature adult cell, once differentiated into a specific cell type, could be reprogrammed and de-differentiated through a natural process that does not require inserting genetic material into the cells.

“Could simple injury cause mature, adult cells to turn into stem cells that could in turn develop into any cell type?” hypothesized the Vacanti brothers.

Vacanti and others used cultured, mature adult cells. After stressing the cells almost to the point of death by exposing them to various stressful environments including trauma, a low oxygen and acidic environments, researchers discovered that within a period of only a few days, the cells survived and recovered from the stressful stimulus by naturally reverting into a state that is equivalent to an embryonic stem cell. With the proper culture conditions, those embryonic-like stem cells were propagated and when exposed to external stimuli, they were then able to redifferentiate and mature into any type of cell and grow into any type of tissue.

To examine the growth potential of these STAP cells, Vacanti and his team used mature blood cells from mice that had been genetically engineered to glow green under a specific wavelength of light. They stressed these cells from the blood by exposing them to acid, and found that in the days following the stress, these cells reverted back to an embryonic stem cell-like state. These stem cells then began growing in spherical clusters (like plant callus tissue). The cell clusters were introduced into developing mouse embryos that came from mice that did not glow green. These embryos now contained a mixture of cells (a “chimera”). The implanted clusters were able to differentiate into green-glowing tissues that were distributed in all organs tested, confirming that the implanted cells are pluripotent.

Thus, external stress might activate unknown cellular functions that set mature adult cells free from their current commitment to a particular cell fate and permit them to revert to their naïve cell state.

“Our findings suggest that somehow, through part of a natural repair process, mature cells turn off some of the epigenetic controls that inhibit expression of certain nuclear genes that result in differentiation,” said Vacanti.

Of course, the next step is to explore this process in more sophisticated mammals, and, ultimately in humans.

“If we can work out the mechanisms by which differentiation states are maintained and lost, it could open up a wide range of possibilities for new research and applications using living cells. But for me the most interesting questions will be the ones that let us gain a deeper understanding of the basic principles at work in these phenomena,” said first author Haruko Obokata, PhD.

If human cells can be made into embryonic stem cells by a similar process, then someday, a simple skin biopsy or blood sample might provide the material to generate embryonic stem cells that are specific to each individual, without the need for genetic engineering or killing the smallest among us. This truly creates endless possibilities for therapeutic options.

An Even Better Way to Make Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Researchers from the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, have discovered an even faster and more efficient way to reprogram adult cells to make induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

This new discovery decreases the time it takes to derived iPSCs from adult cells from a few weeks to a few days. It also elucidated new things about the reprogramming process for iPSCs and their potential for regenerative medical applications.

iPSCs behave similarly to embryonic stem cells, but they can be created from terminally differentiated adult cells. The problem with the earlier protocols for the derivation of iPSCs is that only a very small percentage of cells were successfully reprogrammed (0.1%-2%). Also this reprogramming process takes weeks and is a rather hit-and-miss process.

The Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) research team have been able to reprogram adult cells very efficiently and in a very short period of time.

“Our group was using a particular transcription factor (C/EBPalpha) to reprogram one type of blood cells into another (transdifferentiation). We have now discovered that this factor also acts as a catalyst when reprogramming adult cells into iPS,” said Thomas Graf, senior group leader at the CRG and ICREA research professor.

“The work that we’ve just published presents a detailed description of the mechanism for transforming a blood cell into an iPS. We now understand the mechanics used by the cell so we can reprogram it and make it become pluripotent again in a controlled way, successfully and in a short period of time,” said Graf.

Genetic information is compacted into the nucleus like a wadded up ball of yarn. In order to access genes for gene expression, that ball of yarn has to be unwound so that the cell can find the information it needs.

The C/EBPalpha (CCAAT/Enhancer Binding Protein alpha) protein temporarily unwinds that region of DNA that contains the genes necessary for the induction of pluripotency. Thus, when the reprogramming process begin, the right genes are activated and they enable the successful reprogramming all the cells.

“We already knew that C/EBPalpha was related to cell transdifferentiation processes. We now know its role and why it serves as a catalyst in the reprogramming,” said Bruno Di Stefano, a PhD student. “Following the process described by Yamanaka the reprogramming took weeks, had a very small success rate and, in addition, accumulated mutations and errors. If we incorporate C/EBPalpha, the same process takes only a few days, has a much higher success rate and less possibility of errors, said Di Stefano.

This discovery provides a remarkable insight into stem cell-forming molecular mechanisms, and is of great interest for those studies on the early stages of life, during embryonic development. At the same time, the work provides new clues for successfully reprogramming cells in humans and advances in regenerative medicine and its medical applications.

Safe and Efficient Cell Reprogramming Inside a Living Animal

Research groups at the University of Manchester, and University College, London, UK, have developed a new technique for reprogramming adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells that greatly reduces the risk of tumor formation.

Kostas Kostarelos, who is the principal investigator of the Nanomedicine Lab at the University of Manchester said that he and his colleagues have discovered a safe protocol for reprogramming adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Because of their similarities to embryonic stem cells, many scientist hope that iPSCs are a viable to embryonic stem cells.

How did they do it? According to Kostarelos, “We have induced somatic cells within the liver of adult mice to transient behave as pluripotent stem cells,” said Kostarelos. “This was done by transfer for four specific gene, previously described by the Nobel-prize winning Shinya Yamanaka, without the use of viruses but simply plasmid DNA, a small circular, double-stranded piece of DNA used for manipulating gene expression in a cell.”

This technique does not use viruses, which was the technique of choice in Yamanaka’s research to get genes into cells. Viruses like the kind used by Yamanaka, can cause mutations in the cells. Kostarelos’ technique uses no viruses, and therefore, the mutagenic properties of viruses are not an issue.

Kostarelos continued, “One of the central dogmas of this emerging field is that in vivo implantation of (these stem) cells will lead to their uncontrolled differentiation and the formation of a tumor-like mass.”

However, Kostarelos and his team have determined that the technique they designed does not show this risk, unlike the virus-based methods.

“[This is the ] only experimental technique to report the in vivo reprogramming of adult somatic cells to plurpotentcy using nonviral, transient, rapid and safe methods,” said Kostarelos.

Since this approach uses circular plasmid DNA, the tumor risk is quite low, since plasmid DNA is rather short-lived under these conditions. Therefore, the risk of uncontrolled growth is rather low. While large volumes of plasmid DNA are required to reprogram these cells, the technique appears to be rather safe in laboratory animals.

Also, after a burst of expression of the reprogramming factors, the expression of these genes decreased after several days. Furthermore, the cells that were reprogrammed differentiated into the surrounding tissues (in this case, liver cells). There were no signs in any of the laboratory animals of tumors or liver dysfunction.

This is a remarkable proof-of-principle experiment that shows that reprogramming cells in a living body is fast and efficient and safe.

A great deal more work is necessary in order to show that such a technique can use useful for regenerative medicine, but it is certainly a glorious start.


Also involved in this paper were r, , and .

Pure Heart Muscle Cells from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells With Molecular Beacons

Using induced pluripotent stem cells to have heart muscle cells is one of the goals of regenerative medicine. Successful cultivation of heart muscle cells from a patient’s own cells would provide material to replace dead heart muscle, and could potentially extend the life of a heart-sick patient.

Unfortunately, induced pluripotent stem cells, which are made by applying genetic engineering techniques to a patient’s own adult cells, like embryonic stem cells, will cause tumors when implanted into a living organism. To beat the problem of tumor formation, scientists must be able to efficiently isolate the cells that have properly differentiated from those cells that have not differentiated.

A new paper from a laboratory the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, have used “molecular beacons” to purify heart muscle cells from induced pluripotent stem cells, thus bringing us one step closer to a protocol that isolates pure heart muscle cells from induced pluripotent stem cells made from a patient’s own cells.

Molecular beacons are nanoscale probes that fluoresce when they bind to a cell-specific messenger RNA molecule. Because heart muscle cells express several genes that are only found in heart muscle cells, Kiwon Ban in the laboratory of Young-Sup Yoon designed heart muscle-specific molecular beacons and used them to purify heart muscle cells from cultured induced pluripotent stem cells from both mice and humans.

The molecular beacons made by this team successfully isolated heart muscle cells from an established heart muscle cell line called HL-1. Then Ban and co-workers applied these heart-specific molecular beacons to successfully isolate heart muscle cells that were made from human embryonic stem cells and human induced pluripotent stem cells. The purity of their isolated heart muscle cells topped 99% purity.

Finally, Ban and others implanted these heart muscle cells into the hearts of laboratory mice that had suffered heart attacks. When heart muscle cells that had not been purified were used, tumors resulted. However, when heart muscle cells that had been purified with their molecular beacons were transplanted, no tumors were observed and the heart function of the mice that received them steadily increased.

Because the molecular beacons are not toxic to the cells, they are an ideal way to isolate cells that have fully differentiated to the desired cell fate away from potentially tumor-causing undifferentiated cells. in the words of Ban and his colleagues, “This purification technique in combination with cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) generated from patient-specific hiPSCs will be of great value for drug screening and disease modeling, as well as cell therapy.”

Preventing the Rejection of Embryonic Stem Cell Derivatives – Take Two

Yesterday I blogged about the paper from Yang Xu’s group that used genetically engineered embryonic stem cells to make adult cell types that were not rejected by the immune systems of mice with humanized immune systems. I would like to say a bit more about this paper before I leave it be.

First of all, Xu and his colleagues engineered the cells to express the cell-surface protein PD-L1, which stands for programmed cell death ligand 1 (also known as CD274), and another protein called CTLA4-Ig. The combination of these two proteins tends to make these cells invisible to the immune system for all practical intents and purposes.

PD-L1, however, is used by tumor cells to evade detection by the immune system. For example, increased expression of PD-L1 is highly correlated with the aggressiveness of the cancer. One particular experiment examined 196 tumor specimens that had been extracted from patients with renal cell carcinoma (kidney tumors). In these tumor samples, high expression of PD-L1 was positively associated with increased tumor aggressiveness and a those patients that had higher expression of PD-L1 have a 4.5-fold increased risk of death (see Thompson RH, et al., Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101 (49): 17174–9). In patients with cancer of the ovaries, those tumors with higher PD-L1 expression had a significantly poorer prognosis than those with lower PD-L1 expression. The more PD-L1 these tumors expressed, the fewer tumor-hunting T cells (CD8+ T cells) were present (see Hamanishi J, and others, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104 (9): 3360–5).

So the Xu paper proposes that we introduce genetically engineered cells, which are already at risk for mutations in the first place, into the body, that constitutively express PD-L1, a protein known to be highly expressed in the most aggressive and lethal tumors. Does this sound like a good idea?

With respect to CTLA4-Ig, this is a cell-bound version of a drug that has been approved as an anti-transplantation rejection drug called Belatacept (Nulojix), made by Bristol-Myers-Squibb. Since this is a cell-bound version of this protein, it will almost certainly not have the systemic effects of Belatacept, and if the cells manage to release a certain amount of soluble CTLA4-Ig, it is likely to be very little and have no biological effect.

Therefore, this strategy, while interesting, does come with its own share of risks and caveats.

Preventing Rejection of Embryonic Stem Cell-Based Tissues

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from human embryos. Because they are pluripotent, or have the capacity to make any adult cell type, ESCs are thought to hold great promise for cell therapy as a source of differentiated cell types.

One main drawback to the use of ESCs in regenerative medicine is the rejection of ESC-derived cells by the immune system of the patient. Transplantation of ESC-derived tissues would require the patient to take powerful anti-rejection drugs, which tend to have a boatload of severe side effects.

However, a paper reports a strategy to circumvent rejection of ESC-derived cells. If these strategies prove workable, then they might clear the way to the use of ESCs in regenerative medicine.

The first paper comes from the journal Cell Stem Cell, by Zhili Rong, and others (Volume 14, Issue 1, 121-130, 2 January 2014). In this paper, Rong and his colleagues from the laboratory of Yang Xu at UC San Diego and their Chinese collaborators used mice whose immune systems had been reconstituted with a functional human immune system. These humanized mice mount a robust immune response against ESCs and any cells derived from ESCs.

In their next few experiments, Xu and others genetically engineered human ESCs to routinely express two proteins called CTLA4-Ig and PD-L1. Now this gets a little complicated, but stay with me. The protein known as CTLA4-Ig monkeys with particular cells of the immune system called T cells, and prevents those T cells from mounting an immune response against the cells that display this protein on their surfaces. The second protein, PD-L1, also targets T cells and when T cells bind to cells that have this protein on their surfaces, they are completely prevented from acting.

CTLA-4 mechanism

Think of it this way: T cells are the “detectives” of the immune system. When they find something fishy in the body (immunologically speaking), they get on their “cell phones” and call in the cavalry. However, when these detectives come upon these cells, their cell phones are inactivated, and their memories are wiped. The detectives wander away and then do not remember that they ever came across these cells.

Further experiments showed that any derivatives of these engineered ESCs, (teratomas, fibroblasts, and heart muscle cells) were completely tolerated by the immune system of these humanized mice.

This is a remarkable paper. However, I have a few questions. Genetic engineering of these cells might be potentially dangerous, depending upon how it was done, where in the genome the introduced genes insert, and how they are expressed. Secondly, if cells experience any mutations during the expansion of these cells, these mutations might cause the cells to be detected by the immune system. Third, do these types of immune repression last long-term? Clearly more work will need to be done, but these questions are potentially addressable.

My final concern is that if this procedure is used widespread, it might lead to the wholesale destruction of human embryos. Human embryos, however, are the youngest, weakest, and most vulnerable among us. What does that say about us if we do not value the weakest among us and dismember them for their cells? Would we allow this with toddlers?

Thus my interest and admiration for this paper is tempered by my concerns for human embryos.