Skin Cells Converted into Blood Cells By Direct Reprogramming


Making tissue-specific progenitor cells that possess the ability to survive, but have not passed through the pluripotency state is a highly desirable goal of regenerative medicine. The technique known as “direct reprogramming” uses various genetic tricks to transdifferentiate mature, adult cells into different cell types that can be used for regenerative treatments.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California and his collaborators from Spain have used direct reprogramming to convert human skin cells into a type of white blood cells.

These experiments began with harvesting skin fibroblasts from human volunteers that were then forced to overexpress a gene called “Sox2.” The Sox2 gene is heavily expressed in mice whose bone marrow stem cells are being reconstituted with an infusion of new stem cells. Thus this gene might play a central role is the differentiation of bone marrow stem cells.

Sox2 overexpression in human skin fibroblasts cause the cells express a cell surface protein called CD34. Now this might seem so boring and unimportant, but it is actually really important because CD34 is expressed of the surfaces of hematopoietic stem cells. Hematopoietic stem cells make all the different types of white and red blood cells in our bodies. Therefore, the expression of these protein is not small potatoes.

In addition to the expression of CD34, other genes found in hematopoietic stem cells were also induced, but not strongly. Thus overexpression of SOX2 seems to induce an incipient hematopoietic stem cell‐like status on these fibroblasts. However, could these cells be pushed further?

Gene profiling of hematopoietic stem cells from Umbilical Cord Blood identified a small regulatory RNA known as miR-125b as a factor that pushes SOX2-generated CD34+ cells towards an immature hematopoietic stem cell-like progenitor cell that can be grafted into a laboratory animal.

When SOX2 and miR-125b were overexpressed in combination, the cells transdifferentiated into monocytic lineage progenitor cells.

What are monocytes? They are a type of white blood cells and are, in fact, the largest of all white blood cells. Monocytes compose 2% to 10% of all white blood cells in the human body. They play multiple roles in immune function, including phagocytosis (gobbling up bacteria and other stuff), antigen presentation (identifying and altering other cells to the presence of foreign substances), and cytokine production (small proteins that regulate the immune response).

Monocytes express a molecule on their cell surfaces called CD14, and when human fibroblasts overexpressed Sox2 and miR-125b, they became CD14-expressing cells that looked and acted like monocytes. These cells were able to gobble up bacteria and other foreign material, and when transplanted into a laboratory animal, these directly reprogrammed cells generated cells that established the monocytic/macrophage lineage.

Cancer patients, and other patients with bone marrow diseases can have trouble making sufficient white blood cells. A technique like this can generate transplantable monocytes (at least in laboratory animals) without many of the drawbacks associated with reprogramming human cells into hematopoietic stem cells that possess true clinical potential. Also because this technique skips the pluipotency stage, it is potentially safer.

Umbilical Cord Blood Cells Combined with Growth Factors Improves Traumatic Brain Injury Outcomes


Approximately 2 million Americans experience a traumatic brain injury every year. Most of these are individuals who employed in high-risk jobs such as the military, firefighting, police work and others types of essential but highly dangerous jobs. No matter how small the injury, individuals who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) can suffer from a whole host of motor, behavioral, intellectual and cognitive disabilities over the short or long-term. Unfortunately, there are few clinical treatments for TBI, and the few we have are rather ineffective.

In order to design better, more effective treatments for TBI, neuroscientists at the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, Department of Neurosurgery in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, University of South Florida, have used umbilical cord stem cells in combination with growth factors to treat TBIs in mice.

This study investigated the ability of several strategies, both by themselves and in combination with other therapies, to treat rats with a laboratory form of TBI. In particular, the USF team discovered that a combination of human umbilical cord blood cells (hUBCs) and granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF), a growth factor, was more therapeutic than either administered alone, or each with saline, or saline alone.

“Chronic TBI is typically associated with major secondary molecular injuries, including chronic neuroinflammation, which not only contribute to the death of neuronal cells in the central nervous system, but also impede any natural repair mechanism,” said study lead author Cesar V. Borlongan, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and director of USF’s Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair. “In our study, we used hUBCs and G-CSF alone and in combination. In previous studies, hUBCs have been shown to suppress inflammation, and G-CSF is currently being investigated as a potential therapeutic agent for patients with stroke or Alzheimer’s disease.”

In previous studies, Borlongan and his team showed that G-CSF can mobilize stem cells from bone marrow and induce them to home to and infiltrate injured tissues. While there, the cells promote neural cell self-repair. Cells from human umbilical cord blood also have the ability to suppress inflammation and promote cell growth.

“Our results showed that the combined therapy of hUBCs and G-CSF significantly reduced the TBI-induced loss of neuronal cells in the hippocampus,” said Borlongan. “Therapy with hUBCs and G-CSF alone or in combination produced beneficial results in animals with experimental TBI. G-CSF alone produced only short-lived benefits, while hUBCs alone afforded more robust and stable improvements. However, their combination offered the best motor improvement in the laboratory animals.”

“This outcome may indicate that the stem cells had more widespread biological action than the drug therapy,” said Paul R. Sanberg, distinguished professor at USF and principal investigator of the Department of Defense funded project. “Regardless, their combination had an apparent synergistic effect and resulted in the most effective amelioration of TBI-induced behavioral deficits.”

This particular study examined motor improvements or improvements in movement, but the USF group suggested that future combination therapy research should also include analysis of cognitive improvement in the laboratory animals with TBI.

In short, umbilical cord cell and growth factor treatments tested in animal models could offer hope for millions, including U.S. war veterans with traumatic brain injuries.

Post-script:  On Twitter, Alexey Bersenev made some very helpful observations about this paper.  In this paper, the authors used whole human umbilical cord blood.  They did not attempt to separate any of the different cell types from the cord blood.  Now when such whole blood is used, it is easy to assume that the stem cells in the blood that are doing the regenerative work.  However, as Alexey graciously pointed out, you cannot assume that the stem cells are responsible for the therapeutic effects for at least two main reasons:  1)  the number of stem cells in the cord blood is quite small relative to the other cells; 2) some of the non-stem cells in the blood turn out to have therapeutic effects.  See here and here.  I have seen some of these papers before, but I did not think much of them.  Therefore, until the cell populations in the umbilical cord blood are dissected out and studied, all we can say with any confidence is SOMETHING in the cord blood is conveying a therapeutic effect, but the identity of the therapeutic culprit remains unclear at this time.