Josh Brahm runs the Life Report podcast and is one of the nicest guys on the planet. Josh invited me to his podcast at the end of last year to talk about my book and stem cell research in general. The editing of that exchange has become available.
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.
Scientists might be able to offer people with less that optimal amounts of hair new hope when it comes to reversing baldness. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say they’ve moved closer to using stem cells to treat thinning hair — at least in mice.
This group said that the use of stem cells to regenerate missing or dying hair follicles is considered a potential way to reverse hair loss. However, the technology did not exist to generate adequate numbers of hair-follicle-generating stem cells.
But new findings indicate that this may now be achievable. “This is the first time anyone has made scalable amounts of epithelial stem cells that are capable of generating the epithelial component of hair follicles,” Dr. Xiaowei Xu, an associate professor of dermatology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, said in a university news release.
According to Xu, those cells have many potential applications that extend to wound healing, cosmetics and hair regeneration.
In their new study, Xu’s team converted induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – reprogrammed adult stem cells with many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells – into epithelial stem cells. This is the first time this has been done in either mice or people.
The epithelial stem cells were mixed with certain other cells and implanted into mice. They produced the outermost layers of the skin and hair follicles that are similar to human hair follicles. This study was published in the Jan. 28 edition of the journal Nature Communications.
This suggests that these cells might eventually help regenerate hair in people.
Xu said this achievement with iPSC-derived epithelial stem cells does not mean that a treatment for baldness is around the corner. Hair follicles contain both epithelial cells and a second type of adult cells called dermal papillae.
“When a person loses hair, they lose both types of cells,” Xu said. “We have solved one major problem — the epithelial component of the hair follicle. We need to figure out a way to also make new dermal papillae cells, and no one has figured that part out yet.”
Experts also note that studies conducted in animals often fail when tested in humans.
Johns Hopkins University medical researchers have reported the derivation of human induced-pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that can repair damaged retinal vascular tissue in mice. These stem cells, which were derived from human umbilical cord-blood cells and reprogrammed into an embryonic-like state, were derived without the conventional use of viruses, which can damage genes and initiate cancers. This safer method of growing the cells has drawn increased support among scientists, they say, and paves the way for a stem cell bank of cord-blood derived iPSCs to advance regenerative medical research.
In a report published Jan. 20 in the journal Circulation, Johns Hopkins University stem cell biologist Elias Zambidis and his colleagues described laboratory experiments with these non-viral, human retinal iPSCs, that were created generated using the virus-free method Zambidis first reported in 2011.
“We began with stem cells taken from cord-blood, which have fewer acquired mutations and little, if any, epigenetic memory, which cells accumulate as time goes on,” says Zambidis, associate professor of oncology and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering and the Kimmel Cancer Center. The scientists converted these cells to a status last experienced when they were part of six-day-old embryos.
Instead of using viruses to deliver a gene package to the cells to turn on processes that convert the cells back to stem cell states, Zambidis and his team used plasmids, which are rings of DNA that replicate briefly inside cells and then are degraded and disappear.
Next, the scientists identified and isolated high-quality, multipotent, vascular stem cells that resulted from the differentiation of these iPSC that can differentiate into the types of blood vessel-rich tissues that can repair retinas and other human tissues as well. They identified these cells by looking for cell surface proteins called CD31 and CD146. Zambidis says that they were able to create twice as many well-functioning vascular stem cells as compared with iPSCs made with other methods, and, “more importantly these cells engrafted and integrated into functioning blood vessels in damaged mouse retina.”
Working with Gerard Lutty, Ph.D., and his team at Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute, Zambidis’ team injected these newly iPSC-derived vascular progenitors into mice with damaged retinas (the light-sensitive part of the eyeball). The cells were injected into the eye, the sinus cavity near the eye or into a tail vein. When Zamdibis and his colleagues took images of the mouse retinas, they found that the iPSC-derived vascular progenitors, regardless of injection location, engrafted and repaired blood vessel structures in the retina.
“The blood vessels enlarged like a balloon in each of the locations where the iPSCs engrafted,” says Zambidis. Their vascular progenitors made from cord blood-derived iPSCs compared very well with the ability of vascular progenitors derived from fibroblast-derived iPSCs to repair retinal damage.
Zambidis says that he has plans to conduct additional experiments in diabetic rats, whose conditions more closely resemble human vascular damage to the retina than the mouse model used for the current study, he says.
With mounting requests from other laboratories, Zambidis says he frequently shares his cord blood-derived iPSC with other scientists. “The popular belief that iPSCs therapies need to be specific to individual patients may not be the case,” says Zambidis. He points to recent success of partially matched bone marrow transplants in humans, shown to be as effective as fully matched transplants.
“Support is growing for building a large bank of iPSCs that scientists around the world can access,” says Zambidis, although large resources and intense quality-control would be needed for such a feat. However, Japanese scientists led by stem-cell pioneer Shinya Yamanaka are doing exactly that, he says, creating a bank of stem cells derived from cord-blood samples from Japanese blood banks.
Japanese and American scientists have made a fantastic discovery. An incurable type of chromosomal abnormality, in which one end of the chromosome has fused with the other, is known as a “ring chromosome.” The presence of ring chromosomes often correlates with neurological abnormalities. The collaborative work by these two researcher groups has shown that if induced pluripotent stem cells are derived from abnormal adult cells that contain ring chromosomes will spontaneously repair themselves.
This research team, which included researchers from Kyoto University professor and iPS cell pioneer Shinya Yamanaka, also included Yohei Hayashi and other researchers from the U.S.-based Gladstone Institutes.
“I was very surprised at the results,” said Hayashi. “There still remains a risk, but the findings may lead to the development of breakthrough treatment for chromosomal abnormalities.”
Normal chromosomes pairs consist of two rod-shaped chromosomes, but in the case of a ring chromosome, the arms of one of the two chromosomes are fused to form a ring.
Ring chromosomes tend to be associated with mental disabilities and growth retardation, and there are no therapeutic strategies for ring chromosomes.
Hayashi and his colleagues developed iPS cells from skin cells of patients with ring chromosome disorder to study the effects of this chromosomal defect in stem cells. However, the ring chromosomes could not be observed in the engineered iPS cells made from this patient’s cells.
For reasons still unknown, only normal chromosomes survived, according to the researchers. Typically, a cell that contains ring chromosomes divides into two abnormal cells in the normal mitotic process.
These findings were published in the online edition of the British science journal Nature on Jan. 13, 2014.
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.
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.