Increased Flexibility in Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Derivation Might Solve Tumor Concerns


Regenerative medicine depends on stem cells for the promises that it can potentially deliver to ailing patients. Training stem cells to repair injured tissues with custom-grown tissue substitutes and to replace dead cells are some of the goals of regenerative medicine. A major player in regenerative medicine is induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are made from a patient’s own tissues. Because iPSCs are derived from a patient’s own cells, their chance of being rejected by the patient’s own immune system is rather low. Unfortunately, Shinya Yamanaka’s formula for making iPSCs, for which he was awarded last year’s Nobel Prize, utilizes a strict recipe that uses a precise combination of genes, some of which increase the risk of cancer risk, and, therefore, restricts their full potential for clinical application.

From left: Emmanuel Nivet and Juan Carlos Belmonte. Seated: Ignacio Sancho Martinez. (Source: Salk Institute for Biological Studies)
From left: Emmanuel Nivet and Juan Carlos Belmonte. Seated: Ignacio Sancho Martinez. (Source: Salk Institute for Biological Studies)

However, the laboratory Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues at the Salk Institute have published a paper in the journal Cell Stem Cell that shows that the recipe for iPSCs is much more versatile than originally thought. For the first time, Izpisua Belmonte and his colleague have replaced a gene that was once thought to be impossible to substitute in the production of iPSCs. This creates the potential for more flexible recipes that should speed the adoption of iPSCs for stem cell-based therapies.

Pluripotent stem cells come from two main sources. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from early human blastocyst-stage embryos. The cells of the inner cell mass are extracted and these immature cells that have never differentiated into specific cell types, and are cultured, grown, and propagated to form an embryonic stem cell line. Secondly, induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs, are derived from mature cells that have been reprogrammed back into an undifferentiated state. In 2006 by Yamanaka introduced four different genes into a mature cell to reprogram the cell to pluripotency. This pluripotent cell can be cultured and grown into an iPSCs line. Because of Yamanaka’s initial success in iPSC production, most stem cell researchers adopted his recipe, even though variations on his protocol have been examined and used.

Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues used a fresh approach for the derivation of iPSCs. They played around with the Yamanka protocol and in doing do discovered that pluripotency (the stem cell’s ability to differentiate into nearly any kind of adult cell) can also be programmed into adult cells by “balancing” the genes required for differentiation. What genes? Those genes that code for “lineage transcription factors,” which are proteins that direct stem cells to differentiate first into a particular cell lineage, or type, such as a blood cell versus a skin cell, and then finally into a specific cell, such as a white blood cell.

“Prior to this series of experiments, most researchers in the field started from the premise that they were trying to impose an ’embryonic-like’ state on mature cells,” says Izpisua Belmonte, who holds the Institute’s Roger Guillemin Chair. “Accordingly, major efforts had focused on the identification of factors that are typical of naturally occurring embryonic stem cells, which would allow or further enhance reprogramming.”

Despite these efforts, there seemed to be no way to determine through genetic identity alone that cells were pluripotent. Instead, pluripotency was routinely evaluated by functional assays. In other words, if it acts like a stem cell, it must be a stem cell.

That condition led the team to their key insight. “Pluripotency does not seem to represent a discrete cellular entity but rather a functional state elicited by a balance between opposite differentiation forces,” says Izpisua Belmonte.

Once they understood this, they realized the four extra genes weren’t necessary for pluripotency. Instead, adult cells could be reprogrammed by altering the balance of “lineage specifiers,” genes that were already in the cell that specified what type of adult tissue a cell might become.

“One of the implications of our findings is that stem cell identity is actually not fixed but rather an equilibrium that can be achieved by multiple different combinations of factors that are not necessarily typical of ESCs,” says Ignacio Sancho-Martinez, one of the first authors of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher in Izpisua Belmonte’s laboratory.

Izpisua Belmonte’s laboratory showed that more than seven additional genes can facilitate reprogramming adult cells to iPSCs. Most importantly, for the first time in human cells, they were able to replace a gene from the original recipe called Oct4, which had been replaced in mouse cells, but was still thought indispensable for the reprogramming of human cells. Their ability to replace it, as well as SOX2, another gene once thought essential that had never been replaced in combination with Oct4, demonstrated that stem cell development must be viewed in an entirely new way. In point of fact, Belmonte’s group showed that genes that specify mesendodermal lineage can replace OCT4 in human iPSC generation, and ectodermal lineage specifiers are able to replace SOX2 in hiPSC generation. Simultaneous replacement of OCT4 and SOX2 allows human cell reprogramming to iPSCs

“It was generally assumed that development led to cell/tissue specification by ‘opening’ certain differentiation doors,” says Emmanuel Nivet, a post-doctoral researcher in Izpisua Belmonte’s laboratory and co-first author of the paper, along with Sancho-Martinez and Nuria Montserrat of the Center for Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona, Spain.

Instead, the successful substitution of both Oct4 and SOX2 shows the opposite. “Pluripotency is like a room with all doors open, in which differentiation is accomplished by ‘closing’ doors,” Nivet says. “Inversely, reprogramming to pluripotency is accomplished by opening doors.”

This work should help to overcome one of the major hurdles in the widespread adoption of iPSC-based therapies; namely, that the original four genes used to reprogram stem cells had been implicated in cancer. “Recent studies in cancer, many of them done by my Salk colleagues, have shown molecular similarities between the proliferation of stem cells and cancer cells, so it is not surprising that oncogenes [genes linked to cancer] would be part of the iPSC recipe,” says Izpisua Belmonte.

With this new method, which allows for a customized recipe, the team hopes to push therapeutic research forward. “Since we have shown that it is possible to replace genes thought essential for reprogramming with several different genes that have not been previously involved in tumorigenesis, it is our hope that this study will enable iPSC research to more quickly translate into the clinic,” says Izpisua Belmonte.

Other researchers on the study were Tomoaki Hishida, Sachin Kumar, Yuriko Hishida, Yun Xia and Concepcion Rodriguez Esteban of the Salk Institute; Laia Miquel and Carme Cortina of the Center of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona, Spain.

Developmental Regression: Making Placental Cells from Embryonic Stem Cells


A research group from Copenhagen, Denmark has discovered a way to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells. In order to do this, the embryonic stem cells must be developmentally regressed so that they can become wither placenta-making cells rather than inner cell mass cells.

This study is significant for two reasons. First of all, it was thought to be impossible to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells because embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from the inner cell mass cells of 4-5-day old human blastocysts. These early embryos begin as single-celled embryos that divide to form 12-16-cell embryos that undergo compaction. At this time, the cells on the outside become trophoblast cells, which will form the trophectoderm and form the placenta and the cells on the inside will form the inner cell mass, which will form the embryo proper and a few extraembryonic structures. Since ESCs are derived from inner cell mass cells that have been isolated and successfully cultured, they have already committed to a cell fate that is not placental. Therefore, to differentiate ESCs into placental cells would require that ESCs developmentally regress, which is very difficult to do in culture.

Secondly, if this could be achieved, several placental abnormalities could be more easily investigated, For example, pre-eclampsia is a very serious prenatal condition that is potentially fatal to the mother, and is linked to abnormalities of the placenta. Studying a condition such as pre-eclampsia in a culture system would definitely be a boon to gynecological research.

Because human ESCs can express genes that are characteristic of trophoblast cells if they are treated with a growth factor called Bone Morphogen Protein 4 (BMP4), it seems possible to make placental cells from them (see Xu R.H., Chen X., Li D.S., Li R., Addicks G.C., Glennon C., Zwaka T.P., Thomson J.A. BMP4 initiates human embryonic stem cell differentiation to trophoblast. Nat. Biotechnol. 2002;20:1261–1264, and Xu RH. Methods Mol Med. 2006;121:189-202). However, a study by Andreia S. Bernardo and others from the laboratory of Roger Pedersen at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute strongly suggested that BMP4 treatment, even in the absence of FGF signaling (another growth factor that has to be absent for BMP4 to induce trophoblast-like gene expression from ESCs) the particular genes induced by BMP4 are not exclusive to trophoblast cells and more closely resemble mesodermal gene profiles (see AS Bernardo, et al., Cell Stem Cell. 2011 Aug 5;9(2):144-55).

Into the fray of this debate comes a paper by stem cells scientists at the Danish Stem Cell Center at the University of Copenhagen that shows that it is possible to rewind the developmental state of ESCs.

In this paper, Josh Brickman and his team discovered that if they maintained mouse ESCs under specific conditions, they could cause the cells to regress into very early pre-blastocyst embryonic cells that can form trophoblast cells or ICM cells.

“It was a very exciting moment when we tested the theory, said Brinkman. “We found that not only can we make adult cells but also placenta, in fact we got precursors of placenta, yolk sac as well as embryo from just one cell.”

“This new discovery is crucial for the basic understanding of the nature of embryonic stem cells and could provide a way to model the development of the organism as a whole, rather than just the embryonic portion,” said Sophie Morgani, graduate student and first author of this paper. “In this way we may gain greater insight into conditions where extraembryonic development is impaired, as in the case of miscarriages.”

To de-differentiate the ESCs, Brinkman and his colleagues grew them in a solution called “2i.”  This 2i culture medium contained inhibitors of MEK and GSK3.  MEK is a protein kinase that is a central participant in the “MAP kinase signaling pathway, which is a signaling pathway that is central to cell growth and survival.  This particular signaling pathway is the target of the anthrax toxin, which illustrates its importance,  GSK3 stands for “glycogen synthase kinase 3,” which is a signaling protein in the Wnt pathway.

When the mouse ESCs were grown in 2i medium they expressed genes normally found only in pre-blastocyst embryos (Hex, for example).  Therefore, the 2i medium directs mouse ESCs to de-differentiate.  When ESCs grown in 2i were implanted into mouse embryos, they divided and differentiated into cells that were found in placental and embryonic fates.  This strongly argues that the ESCs grown in 2i became pre-blastocyst embryonic cells.  When the ESCs grown in 2i were also grown with LIF, which stands for “leukemia inhibitory factor” (LIF is a protein required for the maintenance of mouse ESCs in culture), the 2i cells were maintained in culture and grew while maintaining their pre-blastocyst status.  These cells differentiated into placental cells, embryonic or fetal cells.  Essentially, the 2i-cultured cells when from being pluripotent to being “totipotent,” or able to form ALL cell types in the embryo, fetus, or the adult.

ESC de-differentiation in totipotence

“In our study we have been able to see the full picture unifying LIF’s functions: what LIF really does, is to support the very early embryo state, where the cells can make both embryonic cells and placenta. This fits with LIFs’ role in supporting implantation,” said Brinkman.

This study definitively shows that ESCs are NOT embryos.  ESCs can regress in their development but embryos develop forward, becoming more committed as they develop and more restricted in the cell fates they can form.  This should effectively put the nail in the coffin of Lee Silver’s argument against Robert P. George that embryonic stem cells are embryos.  They are definitely and unequivocally, since embryos do NOT develop in reverse, but ESCs can and do.

Robert P. George argues that early human embryos, like the kind used to make ESCs are very young  members of the human race and deserve, at the minimum, the right not to be harmed.  Silver counters that George’s argument is inconsistent because George would not extend the same right to an ESC cell line, which is the same as an embryo.  His reasoning is that mouse ESCs can be transplanted into other mouse embryos that have four copies of each chromosome.  The messed up mouse embryo will make the placenta and the ESCs will make the inner cell mass and the mouse will develop and even come to term.  This is called tetraploid rescue, and Silver thinks that this procedure is a minor manipulation, but that it shows that ESCs are functionally the same as embryos.

I find Silver’s argument wanting on just about all fronts.  This is not a minor manipulation.  The tetraploid embryo is bound for certain death, but the implanted ESCs use the developmental context of the tetraploid embryo to find their place in it and make the inner cell mass.  The ESCs do not do it all on their own, but instead work with the tetraploid embryo in a complex developmental give-and-take to make an embryo with the placenta from one animal and the embryo proper from another.

Thus Silver’s first argument does not demonstrate what he says it does.  All it demonstrates is that ESCs can contribute to an embryo, which is something we already knew and expected.  This new data completes blows Silver’s assertion out of the water, since ESCs can take developmental steps backward and embryos by their very nature and programming, do not.  Thus these two entities are distinct entities and are not identical.  The early embryo is a very young human person, full stop.  We should stop dismembering them in laboratories just to stem our scientific curiosity.

Misrepresentation of the Embryological Facts of Cloning by Reporters


Wesley Smith at National Review Online has been keeping tabs on the reporting of the Cell paper by Shoukhrat Miltalipov from the Oregon Health and Science University. The misrepresentation has been extensive but it’s not really all that surprising given the ignorance and lack of clear thinking on this issue. Nevertheless, Smith has kept up his yeoman’s work, cataloging the factual errors for reporters in multiple publications.

For his first example, see here, where Loren Grush on Fox News.com wrote:

Through a common laboratory method known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), ONPRC scientists, along with researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, essentially swapped the genetic codes of an unfertilized egg and a human skin cell to create their new embryonic stem cells…The combination of the egg’s cytoplasm and the skin cell’s nucleus eventually grows and develops into the embryonic stem cell.

Grush, as Smith points out, is quite wrong. Introducing a nucleus from a body cell into the unfertilized egg and inducing it does not turn the egg into embryonic stem cells, but turns it into a zygote. The zygote them undergoes cleavage (cell division) until it reaches the early/mid blastocyst stage 5-6 days later, then immunosurgery is used to isolated the inner cell mass cells, after which they are cultured. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is a stand-in for fertilization. It produces an embryo and all the redefinition in the world will not change that.

Next comes my favorite newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, which normally has decent to pretty good scientific reporting, but this one story from Gautam Naik contains a real howler:

Scientists have used cloning technology to transform human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, an experiment that may revive the controversy over human cloning. The researchers stopped well short of creating a human clone. But they showed, for the first time, that it is possible to create cloned embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to the person from whom they are derived.

As Smith points out, Miltalipov and others did not stop short of creating a human clone, then explicitly made a cloned human embryo and therefore made a cloned young human being.

Then there is this humdinger from an online Australian news report:

US researchers have reported a breakthrough in stem cell research, describing how they have turned human skin cells into embryonic stem cells for the first time. The method described on Wednesday by Oregon State University scientists in the journal Cell, would not likely be able to create human clones, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, senior scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. But it is an important step in research because it doesn’t require the use of embryos in creating the type of stem cell capable of transforming into any other type of cell in the body.

Oh my gosh, folks the paper describes the production of cloned embryos expressly for the purpose of dismembering them and destroying them. This “doesn’t require the use of embryos” crap reveals a very basic ignorance of how the experiment was done. See Smith’s excellent post for more details.

Then there is this story from one of my least favorite papers, the LA Times:

Some critics continue to argue that it’s unethical to manipulate the genetic makeup of human eggs even if they’re unfertilized, and others warn about potential harm to egg donors. The biggest ethical issue for the OHSU team, though, is that it artificially created a human embryo, albeit one that was missing the components needed for implantation and development as a fetus.

Come on people! The cloned embryo does not have the components needed to implant because there is no womb into which it can be implanted. Dolly was made the same way. Surely Dolly had the components required to implant.  The problem here is one of will, since these embryos were made to be destroyed. Not capacity. What was done to those embryos was dismemberment. Would we object if they were toddlers?

Just to show that obfuscation is not wholly an American news feature, there is this story from the German newspaper Deutche Welle:

Scientists, for the first time, have cloned embryonic stem cells using reprogrammed adult skin cells, without using human embryos…The process used by Mitalipov is an important step in research because it does not require killing a human embryo–that is, a potential human being–to create transformative stem cells.

As Smith points out, this research made a human embryo that was then killed to make embryonic stem cells. Calling this research humane is to redefine humane to the point of absurdity.

Finally this jewel of blithering ignorance from bioethicist Jonathan Moreno in his column in the Huffington Post:

Despite some confused media reports, the Oregon scientists did not clone a human embryo but a blastocyst that lacks some of the cells needed to implant in a uterus.

And you wonder why people like me have lost all faith in American bioethics. As a developmental biologist, this one just grates on me.  A blastocyst has two cell populations; an outer trophectoderm composed of trophoblast cells that will form the placenta and the inner cell mass cells on the inside of the embryo, which will form the embryo proper and a few placental structures. To be a blastocyst is to have the equipment to implant.

To drive the nail into the coffin, Smith quotes the father of embryonic stem cells James Thomson from an MSNBC interview:

See, you are trying to redefine it away…If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer, if you gave it to somebody who didn’t know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from. It is what it is. By any reasonable definition, at least as some frequency, you are creating an embryo. If you try to redefine it away, you are being disingenuous.

Check out Smith’s posts. They are all worth reading. Maybe the press will learn some embryology, but I doubt it.

Postscript:  Brendan P. Foht writes at the Corner on National Review Online that in 2010 Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the leader of the Oregon cloning team, reported that he had achieved a single pregnancy using cloned monkey embryos that were made with exactly the same technology as was employed with human eggs in his 2013 Cell paper.  The fetus developed long enough to have a heartbeat detectable through ultrasound. Although the pregnancy failed after 81 days (about half the normal gestation period for that species), the fact that a pregnancy would develop so far indicates that reproductive cloning of primates is in principle possible.  This definitively shows that all this talk about the embryos made in Mitalipov’s lab not being able to implant is pure drek.

Synthetic version of Oct4 robustly supports induced pluripotent stem cell formation


A recent paper by members of the Danish Stem Cell Centre in Copenhagen, the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York has used a synthetic version of the Oct4 protein to dissect the precise role of this protein in stem cells, and to more effectively generate induced pluripotent stem cells.
Oct4 is a member of the “class V POU” transcription factors. POU stands for Pit-Oct-Unc, which are the founding members of this group of transcription factors. Transcription factors are proteins that bind to specific sequences of DNA and turn on gene expression. The POU family of transcription factors was originally defined on the basis of a common region of ~150–160 amino acids that was identified in the transcription factors Pit-1, Oct-1, and Oct-2, which were known from mammals, and the nematode factor Unc-86. This common POU protein domain is the DNA binding region that consists of two subdomains joined by a common linker.

Embryonic development in mammals is controlled by regulatory genes, many of which regulate the expression of other genes. These regulators activate or repress patterns of gene expression that mediate the changes characteristic of development. Oct4, like other members of the POU family of transcription factors, activates the expression of their target genes by binding an eight-base sequence motif that usually has some similarity to this sequence: AGTCAAAT. During embryonic development, Oct4 is expressed initially in all the cells of the embryo, but eventually becomes restricted to the Inner Cell Mass (ICM) and Oct4 expression fades in the outer cells (known collectively as the trophectoderm). At maturity, Oct4 expression is confined exclusively to the developing germ cells. Disruption of Oct4 in mice produces embryos without a pluripotent ICM. This suggests that Oct4 is required for maintaining pluripotency.

Given the importance of Oct4 in early development, it is no surprise that it plays an important role in embryonic stem cell maintenance. Oct4 also plays an essential role reprogramming adult cells from their mature state to the embryonic state. In the absence of Oct4, embryonic stem cells differentiate. Oct4 plays a powerful role in regulating stem cell genes. However, while large quantities of Oct4 are needed, too much of it can hamstring the properties of stem cells.

Given these data, does Oct4 maintain pluripotency by activating the expression of particular genes or by repressing those genes necessary for differentiation? These scientists, whose work is published in the journal Cell Reports, made fusions of Oct4 with proteins that are known to activate gene expression or fusions with proteins known to repress gene expression. Then they accessed the ability of these fused versions of Oct4 to support pluripotency in embryonic stem cells or induce pluripotency in adult cells.

The synthetic version of Oct4 fused to known activator of gene expression were much more efficient in turning on genes that instruct cells how to be stem cells.  Cells also did not require as much of this synthetic Oct4; stem cells required less of the synthetic Oct4 to remain stem cells and adult cells required less to become reprogrammed as stem cells.  Those synthetic versions of Oct4 that were fused to known transcriptional repressors caused cells to differentiate, and such synthetic versions of Oct4 could not replace endogenous Oct4 in stem cells.

Further tests with the activating synthetic Oct4 showed that it could support stem cells under conditions that are usually not conducive to their growth.  This provides a way to generate stem cells in the laboratory when growth conditions are less than optimal.  Because the activator version of synthetic Oct4 could replace endogenous Oct4 and not the repressor version of synthetic Oct4, Oct4 must work primarily as an activator of gene expression rather than a repressor of gene expression.

Professor Joshua Brickman, who is affiliated with The Danish Stem Cell Center (DanStem), University of Copenhagen and Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. said “Our discovery is an important step towards generating and maintaining stem cells much more effectively.  Embryonic stem cells are characterized, among other things, by their ability to perpetuate themselves indefinitely and differentiate into all the cell types in the body – a trait called pluripotency. But to be able to use them medically, we need to be able to maintain them in a pure state, until they’re needed. When we want to turn a stem cell into a specific cell, such as insulin producing beta cell, or a nerve cell in the brain, we’d like this process to occur accurately and efficiently. This will not be possible if we don’t understand how to maintain stem cells as stem cells. As well as maintaining embryonic stem cells in their pure state more effectively, the artificially created Oct4 was also more effective at reprogramming adult cells into so-called induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPSCs), which have many of the same traits and characteristics as embryonic stem cells but can derived from the patients to both help study degenerative disease and eventually treat them..”

Exploitation of such technology could improve the efficiency of protocols to generate iPSCs in the laboratory and the clinic.  Such cells could be used to produce individualized cells for developing individualized therapies for degenerative diseases such as type 1 diabetes and neuro-degenerative diseases.

Umbilical cord stem cells form nervous system-specific cells for spinal cord repair therapies


Umbilical cord stem cells (UCSCs) have been differentiated into clinically significant cell types that might, potentially, lead to new treatment options for spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, and other nervous system diseases.

James Hickman, a University of Central Florida bioengineer and leader of the research group that accomplished this work, said, “This is the first time this has been done with non-embryonic stem cells. . . . We’re very excited about where this could lead because it overcomes many of the obstacles present with embryonic stem cells.” Hickman’s work and that of his colleagues was published in the Jan. 18 issue of the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience.

UCSCs do not pose the ethical dilemma represented by embryonic stem cells (ESCs). ESC lines are made from 5-day old human embryos and in order to derive them, the inner cell mass cells are extracted from the embryo by means of destroying the embryo. Destruction of a human embryo ends the life of a very young human person. UCSCs, however, come from a source that would otherwise be discarded, and the acquisition of UCSCs do not compromise the life of a human person. Another major benefit is that umbilical cells generally are not rejected by the immune system, and this simplifies their potential use in medical treatments.

The Menlo, California-based pharmaceutical company, Geron, developed a treatment protocol for spinal cord repair that utilized oligodendrocyte precursor cells that were derived from embryonic stem cells. However, it took Geron scientists 18 months to secure approval from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for human clinical trials. This is due, largely, to the ethical and public concerns attached to human ESCs. These concerns, in addition to anxieties over ESC-caused tumors, led the company to shut down its ESC division. This highlights the need for other stem cell alternatives.

One of the greatest challenges in working with any kind of stem cell is determining the precise chemical or biological cues that trigger them to differentiate into the desired cell type.  The lead author on this paper, Hedvika Davis, a postdoctoral researcher in Hickman’s lab, transformed UCSCs into oligodendrocytes (those structural cells that surround and insulate nerves in the brain and spinal cord). Davis learned from research done by other groups that surface proteins on the surfaces of oligodendrocytes bind the hormone/neurotransmitter norepinephrine. This suggests that cells normally interact with this chemical and that it might be one of the factors that stimulates oligodendrocyte production. Therefore Davis decided to treat USCSs with epinephrine as a starting point.

In early tests, Davis found that norepinephrine, plus several other stem cell growth promoters, caused the UCSCs to differentiate into oligodendrocytes. However, that conversion was incomplete, since the cells grew but stopped short of becoming completely mature oligodendrocytes. Clearly something else was needed to push UCSCs completely into mature oligodendrocytes.

Many stem cells differentiate into particular cell types only if the appropriate environment is offered to them. For example, mesenchymal stem cells can form cartilage, but cartilage formation is extremely sensitive to environmental factors like cell density, and the matrix in which cells are embedded. Thus, Davis decided that, in addition to chemistry, the physical environment might be critical. In order to more closely approximate the physical restrictions cells face in the body, Davis constructed a more confined, three-dimensional environment. She grew the cells on a microscope slide, covered by a glass cover slip. Once the UCSCs had the proper confined environment and norepinephrine plus the appropriate growth factors, they differentiated into completely mature oligodendrocytes. Davis noted, “We realized that the stem cells are very sensitive to environmental conditions.”

The use of these differentiated oligodendrocytes is exciting. There are two main options for the use of these cells. First, the cells could be injected into the body at the point of a spinal cord injury to promote repair. Another intriguing possibility for the Hickman team’s work relates to multiple sclerosis and similar conditions. Hickman explained, “Multiple sclerosis is one of the holy grails for this kind of research.” Hickman’s research group is collaborating with Stephen Lambert at UCF’s medical school, another of the paper’s authors, to explore biomedical possibilities.

Oligodendrocytes produce a protein called myelin, which insulates nerve cells. Myelin sheaths make is possible for neurons in the central nervous system to conduct those nerve impulses that guide movement and other functions. Myelin loss is responsible for conditions like multiple sclerosis, and is also observed in other related conditions such as diabetic neuropathy.

The injection of new, healthy oligodendrocytes might improve the condition of patients suffering from such neurological diseases. These research teams are also hoping to develop the techniques needed to grow oligodendrocytes in the lab and use them a model system to better understand the loss and restoration of myelin, and for testing potential new treatments. Hickman enthusiastically said, “We want to do both. We want to use a model system to understand what’s going on and also to look for possible therapies to repair some of the damage, and we think there is great potential in both directions.”