Making Better Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells


On July 2nd of this year, a paper appeared in the journal Nature that performed complete genomic analyses of embryonic stem cells derived from embryos or cloned embryos, and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are made from reprogrammed adult cells.  They found that both embryonic stem cells made from cloned embryos and iPSCs derived from the same types of adult cells contained comparable numbers of newly introduced mutations.  However, when it came to the epigenetic modification of the genome (the small chemical tags attached to specific bases of DNA that gives the cell hints as to which genes to turn off), the epigenetic pattern of the embryonic stem cells made from cloned embryos more closely resembled that from embryonic stem cells.  The iPSCs still had some similarities with the adult cells from which they were derived whereas the embryonic stem cells made from cloned embryos were more completely reprogrammed.  From this the authors claimed that making embryonic stem cells by means of cloning is ideal for cell replacement therapies.

There is a big problem with this conclusion:  This was tried in animals and it did not work because of immunological rejection of the products from the stem cells.  For more information on this, see my book, The Stem Cell Epistles, chapter 18.

Despite this “bad news” for iPSCs, two recent papers have actually provided some good news for stem cells that can heal without destroying embryos.  The first paper comes from Timothy Nelson’s laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  Differentiation of iPSCs is, in some cases, rather efficient and the isolation procedures fail to effectively isolate the differentiated cells from potentially tumor-causing cells.  However, in other cases, the differentiation is inefficient and the isolation procedures are also rather poor, which leaves a large enough population of undifferentiated tumor-causing cells.

Nelson’ group has discovered that treating iPSCs and their derivatives with anti-cancer drugs like etoposide (a topoisomerase II inhibitor for those who are interested) increases engraftment efficiency and decreases the incidence of tumors.  My only problem with Nelson’s paper is that he and his colleagues used lentiviral vectors to make their iPSCs.  These vectors tend to produce iPSCs that are rather good at causing tumors.  I would have rather that he tried making iPSCs with other methods that do not leave permanent transgenes in the cells.  Nelson and his group transplanted their iPSC-derived cells into the hearts of mice where they could use high-resolution imaging to determine the number of cells that integrated into the heart and the presence of cell masses that were indicative of tumors.  None of the ectoposide-treated cell transplants caused tumors whereas 4 of the 5 transplants not treated with ectoposide caused tumors.  This paper appeared in Stem Cells and Development.

The second “good news” paper for iPSCs comes from Junji Takeda at the University of Osaka and Ken Igawa from the Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Japan.   In their paper from Stem Cells Translational Medicine, the Japanese groups collaborated to make iPSCs from skin based fibroblasts and then differentiate them into skin cells (keratinocytes).  However, they made the iPSCs in two different ways.  The first protocol utilized the piggyBac transposon system to make iPSCs.  The piggyBac system comes from moths, but it is highly active in mammalian cells.  It can deliver the genes to the cells, but the segment of DNA is then easily excised from the host cells without causing any mutations.  This system, therefore, will generate iPSCs that do not have any transgenes in them.  The second protocol used a system based on cytomegalovirus that leaves the transgenes in the cells but gradually inactivates their expression.

When these two types of iPSCs were compared, they seems to be essentially identical when grown in culture.  Thus in the pluripotent state, the cells were equivalent for the most part.  But once the iPSC lines were differentiated into skin cells, the transgene-free iPSCs formed skin cells that looked, behaved and had the same gene expression profile as normal human skin cells.  The transgene-containing iPSCs differentiated into skin cells, but they did not look quite like skin cells, did not have the same gene expression profile as normal human skin cells, and did not behave like normal human skin cells.

The moral of this story is that not all iPSC lines are created equally and the way you derive them is as important as the cell type from which they were derived.  Also, even incomplete differentiation does not need to be an obstacle for iPSCs, since the cancer-causing cells can be removed by means of specific drugs.  Finally, not all that glitters is gold.  Cloned embryos may give you stem cells that look more like embryonic stem cells, but so what.  These might still suffer from many of the same set backs.  Add to that the ethical problems with getting women to give up their eggs for research and cures (see Jennifer Lahl’s movie Eggsploitation for more disturbing information about that), and you have a losing combination.

Skin Tissue Grown From Human Stem Cells


A research team from King’s College, London, in collaboration with the San Francisco Veteran Affairs Medical Center has succeeded in growing the epidermal layer of skin in culture, this cultured skin has many of the mechanical and biological properties of actual human skin.

The outermost layer of the skin, known as the epidermis forms a protective barrier between the external environment and the body. It protects against water loss and prevents the entry of microorganisms.

Tissue engineers have been able to grow skin cells (keratinocytes) in culture, but getting them to organize into an organ that resembles biological skin has proven rather difficult. However, the ability to test drugs on cultured skin that greatly mimics human skin has been the goal of such research for several years.

For this present project, keratinocytes were made from induced pluripotent stem cells that were derived from skin cells obtained from biopsies. These keratinocytes made from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) were very similar to keratinocytes made from embryonic stem cells and primary keratinocytes isolated from skin biopsies.

To form a three-dimensional structure like skin, the keratinocytes were cultured in a high-to-low humidity environment and they assembled into a layer structure that looked like human skin. When this cultured skin was compared with skin made from embryonic stem cell-derived keratinocytes or from keratinocytes isolated from skin biopsies, there were no significant structural differences.

Scientists hope to use this cultured skin to study congenital skin diseases like ichthyosis (characterized by dry, flaky skin) or atopic dermatitis. Growing large quantities of skin in culture will also allow drugs and cosmetics to be effectively tested for safety without the use of expensive and sometimes highly variable animal models.

This technology would also allow different laboratories to grow skin from different ethnic groups that have distinct types of skin with variable biological properties.

Artificial Skin Created Using Umbilical Cord Stem Cells


Major burn patients usually must wait weeks for artificial skin to be grown in the laboratory to replace their damaged skin, buy a Spanish laboratory has developed new protocols and techniques that accelerate the growth of artificial skin from umbilical cord stem cells. Such laboratory-grown skin can be frozen and stored in tissue banks and used when needed.

Growing skin in the laboratory requires the acquisition of keratinocytes, those cells that compose the skin and the mucosal covering inside our mouths.  Keratinocytes can be cultured in the laboratory, but they have a long cell cycle, which means that they take a really long time to divide.  Consequently, cell cultures of keratinocytes tend to take a very long time to grow.

Keratinocytes in culture
Keratinocytes in culture

As they grow, the keratinocytes respond to connective tissue underneath them to receive the cues that tell them how to connect with each other and form either skin or oral mucosa.  In patients with severe burns, however, the underlying connective tissue is also often damaged.  Therefore, finding a way to not only accelerate the growth of cultured keratinocytes, but also to provide the underlying structure that directs the cells to form a proper epithelium is essential.

Remember that severe burn patients are living on borrowed time.  Without a proper skin covering, water loss is severe and dehydration is a genuine threat.  Also, infection is another looming threat.  Therefore, the treatment of a burn patient is a race against time.

Because umbilical cord stem cells grow quickly and effectively in culture, they might be able to differentiate into keratinocytes and form the structures associated with oral mucosa and skin.

University of Granada researchers used a new type of epithelial covering to grow their artificial skin in addition to a biomaterial made of fibrin (the stiff, cable-like protein that forms clots) and agarose to provide the underlying connective tissue. In case you might need a refresher, an epithelium refers to a layer of cells that have distinct connects with each other and form a discrete layer. Epithelia can form single or multiple layers and can be composed of long, skinny cells, short, flat cells, or boxy cells.  An epithelium is a membrane-like tissue composed of one or more layers of cells separated by very little intervening substances.  Epithelia cover most internal and external surfaces of the body and its organs.

Previous work from this same research group showed that stem cells from Wharton’s jelly (connective tissue within the umbilical cord), could be converted into epithelial cells. This current study confirms and extends this previous work and applies it to growing skin, and oral mucosa.

“Creating this new type of skin suing stem cells, which can be stored in tissue banks, mains that it can be used instantly when injuries are caused, and which would bring the application of artificial skin forward many weeks,” said Antonio Campos, professor of histology and one of the authors of this study.

By growing the Wharton’s jelly stem cells on their engineered matrix in a three-dimensional culture system, Campos and his colleagues saw that the stem cells stratified (formed layers), and expressed a bunch of genes that are peculiar to skin and other types of epithelia that cover surfaces (e.g., cytokeratins 1, 4, 8, and 13; plakoglobin, filaggrin, and involucrin).  When examined with an electron microscope, the cells had truly formed the kinds of tight connections and junctions that are so common to skin epithelia.

Electron microscopy analysis of controls and three-dimensional bioactive models of H-hOM and H-hS. SEM images (top) corresponding to N-hOM and N-hS controls showed a tight superficial layer of flat polygonal cells with desquamation signs in which cells were covering the entire surface, whereas samples kept in vitro for 2 weeks showed immature differentiation patterns, and samples implanted in vivo for 40 days tended to resemble the structure of the native control tissues, with flattened cells and evident signs of desquamation. Scale bars = 50 μm. TEM samples (bottom) were analyzed after 40 days of in vivo implantation and demonstrated that in vivo-implanted tissues were mature and well-differentiated, with numerous intercellular junctions, abundant cell organelles, and a collagen-rich stroma. Scale bars = 1 μm. Abbreviations: H-hOM, heterotypical human oral mucosa; H-hS, heterotypical human skin; N-hOM, native human oral mucosa; N-hS, native human skin; SEM, scanning electron microscopy; TEM, transmission electron microscopy.
Electron microscopy analysis of controls and three-dimensional bioactive models of H-hOM and H-hS. SEM images (top) corresponding to N-hOM and N-hS controls showed a tight superficial layer of flat polygonal cells with desquamation signs in which cells were covering the entire surface, whereas samples kept in vitro for 2 weeks showed immature differentiation patterns, and samples implanted in vivo for 40 days tended to resemble the structure of the native control tissues, with flattened cells and evident signs of desquamation. Scale bars = 50 μm. TEM samples (bottom) were analyzed after 40 days of in vivo implantation and demonstrated that in vivo-implanted tissues were mature and well-differentiated, with numerous intercellular junctions, abundant cell organelles, and a collagen-rich stroma. Scale bars = 1 μm. Abbreviations: H-hOM, heterotypical human oral mucosa; H-hS, heterotypical human skin; N-hOM, native human oral mucosa; N-hS, native human skin; SEM, scanning electron microscopy; TEM, transmission electron microscopy.

The authors conclude the article with this statement: “All these findings support the idea that HWJSCs could be useful for the development of human skin and oral mucosa tissues for clinical use in patients with large skin and oral mucosa injuries.”  Think of it folks – new skin for burn patients, quickly, safely and ethically.

Now back to reality – this is exciting, but it is a a pre-clinical study.  Larger animals studies must show the efficacy and safety of this protocol before human trials can be considered, but you must admit that it looks exciting; and without killing any embryos.

See I. Garzón, et al., Stem Cells Trans MedAugust 2013 vol. 2 no. 8625-632.