McMaster Scientists Convert Blood into Neural Cells With One Gene


McMaster University stem cell scientists have discovered a way to adult sensory neurons from human patients simply by having them roll up their sleeve and provide a blood sample. The McMaster scientists directly converted adult human blood cells to both central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) neurons and peripheral nervous system (rest of the body) neurons responsible for pain, temperature and itch perception. This means that how a person’s nervous system cells react and respond to stimuli can be determined from their blood.

This breakthrough was published online recently and was also featured on the cover of the journal Cell Reports. The leader of this research, Mick Bhatia, serves as the director of the McMaster and Cancer Research Institute and holds the Canada Research Chair in Human stem Cell Biology and is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

Scientists do not have a robust understanding of pain and how to treat it. Neurons in the peripheral nervous system is composed of different types of nerves that detect mechanical forces like pressure or touch, and others and detect temperature, such as heat. Pain is perceived by the brain when signals are sent by peripheral pain receptors.

“The problem is that unlike blood, a skin sample or even a tissue biopsy, you can’t take a piece of a patient’s neural system. It runs like complex wiring throughout the body and portions cannot be sampled for study,” said Bhatia.

“Now we can take easy to obtain blood samples, and make the main cell types of neurological systems — the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system — in a dish that is specialized for each patient,” said Bhatia. “Nobody has ever done this with adult blood. Ever.

“We can actually take a patient’s blood sample, as routinely performed in a doctor’s office, and with it we can produce one million sensory neurons, that make up the peripheral nerves in short order with this new approach. We can also make central nervous system cells, as the blood to neural conversion technology we developed creates neural stem cells during the process of conversion.”

This new protocol uses a gene called “Oct4” to directly reprogram blood cells. Additionally, if two proteins (SMAD and GSK-3) are inhibited with small molecules while the cells are transfected with the Oct4 gene, then the resultant cells transdifferentiate into blood-derived induced neural progenitor cells (BD-iNPCs). Now the direct conversion of skin cells called fibroblasts into neural progenitor cells that look a great like neural crest cells. However, these BD-iNPCs have the ability to differentiate into glial cells (support cells in the nervous system, multiple central nervous system neurons, and pain receptors, which are normally found in the peripheral nervous system.

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Using OCT-4-induced direct reprogramming, Lee et al. convert human blood to neural progenitors with both CNS and PNS developmental capacity. This fate alternation is distinct from fibroblasts that are primed for neural potential. Furthermore, human sensory neurons derived from blood phenocopy chemo-induced neuropathy in formats suitable for drug screening.

This new, revolutionary protocol that directly converts white blood cells into neurons with one gene has not only been patented, but has “broad and immediate applications,” according to Bhatia. He also added that it allows researchers to start asking questions about understanding disease and improving treatments. These cells could be used to determine why certain people feel pain instead of numbness, or whether or not the degree to which people perceive pain is genetically determines, or whether or not diabetic neuropathy ca be mimicked in a culture dish? Bhatia’s new protocol also provides a slick, new model system to find new pain drugs that don’t just numb the perception of pain, but completely block it.

“If I was a patient and I was feeling pain or experiencing neuropathy, the prized pain drug for me would target the peripheral nervous system neurons, but do nothing to the central nervous system, thus avoiding non-addictive drug side effects,” said Bhatia. “You don’t want to feel sleepy or unaware, you just want your pain to go away. But, up until now, no one’s had the ability and required technology to actually test different drugs to find something that targets the peripheral nervous system and not the central nervous system in a patient specific, or personalized manner.”

Bhatia’s team successfully tested their protocol by using fresh blood and frozen blood. This is an important piece of research since blood samples are usually taken and frozen. Freezing blood samples allows scientists or even physicians to create a kind of “time machine” that can show the evolution of a patient’s response to pain over a period of time.

For future studies, Bhatia and his colleagues would like to examine patients with Type 2 Diabetes to determine if his technique can help predict whether they will experience neuropathy by running tests in the lab using their own neural cells derived from their blood sample.

“This bench to bedside research is very exciting and will have a major impact on the management of neurological diseases, particularly neuropathic pain,” said Akbar Panju, medical director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Pain Research and Care, a clinician and professor of medicine.

“This research will help us understand the response of cells to different drugs and different stimulation responses, and allow us to provide individualized or personalized medical therapy for patients suffering with neuropathic pain.”

An Improved Way to Make Motor Neurons in the Laboratory from Stem Cells


A research team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has reported that they can produce human motor neurons from stem cells much more quickly and efficiently than previous methods allowed. This finding was published in the journal Nature Communications and it will almost certainly provide new ways to model human motor neuron development, diseases of the nervous system, and ways to treat spinal cord injuries.

The new protocol described in the Nature Communications paper includes adding critical signaling molecules to precursor cells a few days earlier than specified by previous methods. This innovation increases the proportion of healthy motor neurons derived from stem cells from 30 to 70 percent. It also cuts in half the time required to make motor neurons.

“We would argue that whatever happens in the human body is going to be quite efficient, quite rapid,” said University of Illinois cell and developmental biology professor Fei Wang, who led the study with visiting scholar Qiuhao Qu and materials science and engineering professor Jianjun Cheng. “Previous approaches took 40 to 50 days, and then the efficiency was very low – 20 to 30 percent. So it’s unlikely that those methods recreate human motor neuron development.”

The new method designed by Qu generated a larger population of mature, functional motor neurons in 20 days. According to Wang, this new approach will allow scientists to induce mature human motor neuron development in cell culture, and to identify the factors that drive this process

Because stem cells can differentiate into a wide variety of cell types, they are unique compared to mature, adult cells. Making neurons from either embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells requires the addition of signaling molecules to the cells at critical moments in culture.

Previously, Wang and his colleagues discovered a molecule called compound C that converts stem cells into “neural progenitor cells,” or NPCs. NPCs represent an early stage in neuronal development, and further manipulation of NPCs can drive them to become neurons, but differentiating NPCs into motor neurons presents another set of problems.

Other published studies have established that the addition of two important signaling molecules, six days after exposure to compound C, to NPCs in culture can generate motor neurons, but at rather poor efficiencies. In this newly published study, Qu showed that adding the signaling molecules at Day 3 worked better: The NPCs differentiated into motor neurons quickly and efficiently. Thus, Day 3 represents a previously unrecognized NPC cell stage.

This new approach has immediate applications in the laboratory. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS is a neurological disease that causes motor neurons to die off. By using Wang and Qu’s cell culture system to make neurons from the skin cells of ALS, and watching them develop into motor neurons, scientists and physicians will divine other new insights into disease processes. Therefore, any method that improves the speed and efficiency of generating the motor neurons will be a boon to neuroscientists. These cells can also be used to screen for drugs to treat motor neuron diseases, and might even be used to therapeutically restore lost function in patients someday.

“To have a rapid, efficient way to generate motor neurons will undoubtedly be crucial to studying – and potentially also treating – spinal cord injuries and diseases like ALS,” Wang said.

Tumor Suppressor Gene is Required For Neural Stem Cells to Differentiate into Mature Neurons


Cancer cells form when healthy cells accumulate mutations that either inactivate tumor suppressor genes or activate proto-oncogenes. Tumor suppressor genes work inside cells to put the brakes on cell proliferation. Proto-oncogenes work to drive cell proliferation. Loss-of-function mutations in tumor suppressor genes remove controls on cell proliferation, which causes cells to divide uncontrollably. Conversely activating mutations in proto-oncogenes removes the controls on the activity of proto-oncogenes, converting them into oncogenes and driving the cell to divide uncontrollably. If a cell accumulates enough of these mutations, they can grow in such an uncontrollable fashion that they start to gain extra chromosomes or pieces of chromosomes, which contributes to the genetic abnormality of the cell. Accumulation of more mutations allows the cell to break free from the original tumorous mass and spread to other tissues.

There are over 35 identified tumor suppressor genes and one of these, CHD5, has another role besides controlling cell proliferation. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Swede, in collaboration with other laboratories at Trinity College in Dublin and BRIC in Copenhagen has established a vital role for CHD5 in normal nervous development.

Once stem cells approach the final phase of differentiation into neurons, the CHD5 protein is made at high levels. CHD5 reshapes the chromatin structure into which DNA is packaged in cells, and in doing so, it facilitates or obstructs the expression of other genes.

Ulrika Nyman, postdoc researcher in Johan Holmberg’s laboratory, said that when they switched of CHD5 expression in stem cells from mouse embryos at the time when the brain develops, the CHD5-less stem cells were unable to turn off those genes that are usually expressed in other tissues, and equally unable to turn on those genes necessary for making mature neurons. Thus these CHD5-less stem cells were trapped in a nether-state between stem cells and neurons.

CHD5 function in stem cell differentiationretinoic

The gene that encodes the CHD5 protein is found on chromosome 1 (1p36) and it is lost in several different cancers, in particular neuroblastomas, a disease found mainly in children and is thought to arise during the development of the peripheral nervous system.

Neuroblastomas that lack this part of chromosome 1 that contains the CHD5 gene are usually more aggressive and more rapidly fatal.

Treatment with retinoic acid forces immature nerve cells and some neuroblastomas to mature into specialized nerve cells. However, when workers from Holmberg’s laboratory prevented neuroblastomas from turning up their expression of CHD5, they no longer responded to retinoic acid treatment.

Holmberg explained, “In the absence of CHD5, neural tumor cells cannot mature into harmless neurons, but continue to divide, making the tumor more malignant and much harder to treat. We now hope to be able to restore the ability to upregulate CHD5 in aggressive tumor cells and make them mature into harmless nerve cells.”

FDA Approves the First Stem Cell Clinical Trial for Multiple Sclerosis


The Tirsch Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Research Center of New York has received Investigational New Drug (IND) approval from the Food and Drug Administration to launch a Phase I trial that uses a patient’s own neural stem cells to treat MS.

MS is a chronic disease that results when a patient’s own immune system attacks the myelin insulation that covers many nerves. This damages the myelin sheath and causes degeneration of the nervous system. Some 2.1 million people worldwide are afflicted with MS.

“To my knowledge, this is the first FDA-approved stem cells trial in the United States to investigate direct injection of stem cells into the cerebrospinal fluid of MS patients, and represents an exciting advance in MS research and treatment,” said Saud A. Sadiq, senior research scientist at Tisch and the study’s principal investigator.

The groundbreaking study will evaluate the safety of using stem cells harvested from the patient’s own bone marrow. Once harvested, these stem cells will be injected into the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the spinal cord in 20 participants who meet the inclusion criteria for this trial.

Since this is a phase 1 study, it is an open safety and tolerability study. The Tisch MS Research Center and affiliated International Multiple Sclerosis Management Practice (IMSMP) will host all the activities associated with this study.

The clinical application of autologous neural precursors in MS is the culmination of a decade of stem cell research headed by Sadiq and his colleague Violaine Harris, a research scientist at Tisch.

Preclinical testing found that the injection of these cells seems to decrease inflammation in the brain and may also promote myelin repair and neuroprotection.  In a 2012 publication in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences, Harris and others showed that mesenchymal stem cell-derived neural progenitor cells could promote repair and recovery after intrathecal injection into mice with EAE (experimental autoimmune encephalitis), which is a MS-like disease in mice.  They were able to ascertain that intrathecal injection of mesenchymal stem cell-derived neural progenitor cells significantly correlated with reduced immune cell infiltration in the brain, reduced area of demyelination, and increased number of neural progenitor cells in EAE mice.  This successful preclinical study was the impetus for this clinical trial.

Sadiq said, “This study exemplifies the Tisch MS Research Center’s dedication to translational research and provides a hope that established disability may be reversed in MS.” All study participants will undergo a single bone marrow collection procedure, from which mesenchymal stem cell-derived neural progenitor cells (MSC-NPs) will be isolated. expanded, and tested prior to injection.

All patients will receive three rounds of injections at three-month intervals. Safety and efficacy parameters will be evaluated in all trial participants throughout their regular visits with their attending physicians.

How Neural Stem Cells Create New and Varied Neurons


A new study in fruit flies has elucidated a mechanism in neural stem cells by which these types of stem cells generate the wide range of neurons that they form.

Chris Doe, a professor of biology from the Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon, and his co-authors have used the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to investigate the cellular mechanism by which neural stem cells make their distinctive progeny.

As Doe put it, “The question we confronted was ‘How does a single kind of stem cell, like a neural stem cell, make all kinds of neurons?”

Researchers have known for some period of time that stem cells have the capacity to produce new cells, but the study by Doe’s group shows how a select group of stem cells can create progenitor cells that can generate numerous subtypes of cells.

Doe’s study builds on previous studies in which Doe and his colleagues identified the specific set of stem cells that generated neural precursors. These so-called “intermediate neural progenitors” or INPs can expand to form several different new cell types. However, this study did not account for the diversity of the cells generated even if it did account for the number of cells generated (see Boone JQ, Doe CQ, Dev Neurobiol. 2008 Aug;68(9):1185-95).

“While it’s been known that individual neural stem cells or progenitors could change over time to make different types of neurons and other types of cells in the nervous system, the full extent of this temporal patterning had not been described for large neural stem cell lineages, which contain several different kinds of neural progenitors,” according to this study’s first author Omar Bayraktar.

The cell types discovered in this study have analogs in the developing human brain and the research has potential applications for human biologists who want to know how neurons form in the human brain.

The paper from Doe’s lab was published along another study on the generation of diverse neurons by a group from New York University. These two papers provide new insight into the means by which neural stem cells generate the wide range of neurons found in the brains of fruit flies and humans.

In their study, Bayraktar and Doe specifically examined stem cells in fruit fly brains known as type II neuroblasts, which generate INPs. However, in this study, the type II neuroblasts were shown to generate INPs, which then go on to form distinct neural subtypes. Even though previous work showed that INPs went on to form about 100 new neurons, in this paper, the INPs were shown to make about 400-500 new neurons.

Another interesting finding was that the gene expression patterns of INPs, which began with three different transcription factors (Dichaete, Grainy Head, and Eyeless). These transcription factors lay the groundwork for INP differentiation, but once INP formation occurs, a new transcriptional program is extended that extends the types of neurons that INPs can form. Such nested transcriptional programs are also common during the specification of neural stem cell progeny in humans brains, with many of the same transcription factors playing a central role in neuron specification.

“If human biologists understand how the different types of neurons are made, if we can tell them ‘This is the pathway by which x, y, and Z neurons are made,’ then they may be able to reprogram and redirect stem cells to make these precise neurons,” Doe said.

However, the mechanism described in this paper has its limits. Eventually the process of generation new cells stops. One of the next questions to answer will be what makes the mechanism turn off, according to Doe.

“This vital research will no doubt capture the attention of human biologists,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, who is vice-president for research and innovation and the dean of the UP graduate school. “Researchers at the University of Oregon continue to further our understanding of the processes that undergird development to improve the health and well-being of people throughout the world.”

See Bayraktar OA, Doe CQ. Combinatorial temporal patterning in progenitors expands neural diversity. Nature. 2013 Jun 27;498(7455):449-55. doi: 10.1038/nature12266.

Making Brain Cells from Urine


Every day people flush large quantities of cells down the toilet. We think nothing of it because these cells are sloughed into our urine and there is little that can be done about it. However, Chinese scientists have used cells from urine to make neurons that could eventually be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

The technique is described in a study that was published in the journal Nature Methods (Wang, et al., Nature Methods (2012) doi:10.1038/nmeth.2283). Unlike embryonic stem cells, which are derived through the destruction of embryos and have the potential to cause tumors, these neural progenitor cells do not form tumors and are made quickly and without the destruction of human embryos.

Stem cell biology expert Duanqing Pei and his co-workers from China’s Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, previously published a paper that showed that epithelial cells from the kidney that are sloughed into urine can be reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) (Ting Zhou, et al., Journal of the American Society of Nephrology 2011 vol. 22 no. 7 1221-1228, doi: 10.1681/ASN.2011010106). In this study, Pei and his colleagues used retroviruses to insert pluripotency genes into kidney-based cells to reprogram them. Retroviruses are efficient vectors for genes transfer, but they insert their virus genomes into the genomes of the host cell. This insertion event can cause mutations, and for this reason, retroviral-based introduction of genes into cells are not the preferred way to generate iPSCs for clinical purposes.

Researchers use retroviruses to routinely reprogram cultured skin and blood cells into iPSCs, and these iPSCs can be differentiated into any adult cell type. However, urine is a much more accessible source of cells.

In this present study, Pei’s team used a different technique to introduce genes into the cells from urine; they used “episomal vectors,” which is an overly fancy way of saying that they placed the pluripotency genes on small circles of DNA that were then pushed into the cells. Episomal vectors can reprogram adult cells into iPSCs, but they do so at lower levels of efficiency. Nevertheless, episomal vectors have an added advantage in that the vectors transiently express the pluripotency genes in cells and then are lost without inserting into the host cell genome. This makes episomal vectors inherently safer for clinical purposes.

In one of their experiments, perfectly round colonies of reprogrammed cells from urine that resembled pluripotent stem cells after only 12 days. This is exactly half the time typically required to produce iPSCs. When cultured further, the colonies assumed a rosette shape that is common to neural stem cells.

When Pei and others cultured his urine-derived iPSCs in a culture conditions that normally used for cultured neurons, these cells formed functional neurons in the lab. Could these cells work in the brain of a laboratory animal? Transplantation of these cells into the brains of newborn rats showed that, first of all, they did not form tumors, and, secondly, they took on the shape of mature neurons and expressed the molecular markers of neurons.

The beauty of this experiment is that neural progenitors cells (NPCs) grow in culture and researchers can generate buckets of cells for experiments. However, when cells are directly reprogrammed to neurons, even though they make neurons faster than iPSCs.

James Ellis, a medical geneticist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in Ontario, Canada who makes patient-specific iPSCs to study autism-spectrum disorders, said: “This could definitely speed things up.”

Another plus of this study is that urine can be collected from nearly any patient and banked to produce instant sources of cells from patients, according to geneticist Marc Lalande, who creates iPSCs to study inherited neurological diseases at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. Lalande is quite intrigued by the possibility of making iPSCs and NPCs from urine draw from the same patient. Lalande added: “We work on childhood disorders,” he says. “And it’s easier to get a child to give a urine sample than to prick them for blood.”

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Form Layered Retina-Like Structure in Culture


Embryonic stem cells can form several different types of eye-specific cells. In the early years of the 21st century, reproducible and efficient methods for differentiating embryonic stem cells into lens cells, retinal neurons, and retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells were developed (Haruta M., Embryonic stem cells: potential source for ocular repair. Semin Ophthalmol. 2005 Jan-Mar;20(1):17-23).

Other experiments showed that embryonic stem cells could be differentiated into neural progenitor cells (NPCs). These NPCs differentiated in culture and some of them even expressed genes characteristic of developing retinal cells. Although it must be noted that this was uncommon and cells expressing markers of mature photoreceptors were not observed. Implantation of these differentiated NPCs into the retinas of laboratory animals allowed them to survive for at least 16 weeks, migrate over large distances, and form photoreceptor-like cells that made blue-absorbing pigments. These cells also integrated into the host retina (Banin E, Retinal incorporation and differentiation of neural precursors derived from human embryonic stem cells. Steem Cells. 2006 Feb;24(2):246-57).

These early experiments were followed by several others that showed equally remarkable promise. Workers in Takahashi’s laboratory in Kobe, Japan found that embryonic stem cells could form retinal precursors, but that they rarely formed photoreceptors unless they were treated with extracts from embryonic retinas. However in a follow-up paper in 2008, Takahashi, research group found that specific cocktails of small molecules and/or growth factors could push retinal precursors to form photoreceptors (Osakada, et al., Nat Biotechnol. 2008 Feb;26(2):215-24). Kunisada’s lab in Gifu, Japan used various techniques to differentiate embryonic stem cells in culture so that they would form an elaborate retinal-like structure. When this structure was transplanted into the eyes of rodents with inherited eye diseases, these transplanted cells regenerated the ganglion cells in the retina (Aoki H, et al., Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 2008 Feb;246(2):255-65). Yu’s lab from Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea made pure RPE cell cultures from embryonic stem cells and then transplanted them into the eyes of rodents with RPE-based retinal degeneration diseases (Park UC, et al., Clin Exp Reprod Med. 2011 Dec;38(4):216-21). The transplanted cells formed RPEs and integrated into the retinas of the laboratory animals. Sophisticated functional assays definitively showed that the RPEs made from embryonic stem cells gobbled up the old segments from photoreceptors and recycled the components back to the photoreceptors (Carr AJ, et al., Mol Vis. 2009;15:283-95).

Using embryonic stem cells to make retina-like structures in culture can provide a model for testing new drugs and procedures to treat degenerative eye diseased such a macular degeneration. Also, such structures might be used to transplant sections of retina into the eyes of individuals where the retina has died off.

With this goal in mind, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have succeeded in making made early retina structures that contain growing neuroretinal progenitor cells. The novelty in this experiment is that they did it using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells that were derived from human blood cells.

In 2011, the laboratory, of David Gamm lab, pediatric ophthalmologist and senior author of the study whose lab is at the Waisman Center, created structures from the most primitive stage of retinal development using embryonic stem cells and iPS cells derived from human skin. These structures generated the major types of retinal cells, including photoreceptors, they did not possess the layered structure found in more mature retina. Clearly something was missing t form a retinal-like structure.

The iPS cells used in this study were made by scientists at a biotechnology company called Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) of Madison, Wisconsin. CDI pioneered the technique to convert blood cells into iPS cells, and they extracted a type of blood cell called a T-lymphocyte from donor samples. These T-lymphocytes were reprogrammed into iPS cells (full disclosure: CDI was founded by UW-Madison stem cell pioneer James Thomson).

With these iPS cells, Gamm and postdoctoral researcher and lead author Joseph Phillips, used their previously-established protocol to grow retina-like tissue from iPS cells. However, this time, about 16% of the initial retinal structures developed distinct layers, which is the structure observed in a mature retina. The outermost layer primarily contained photoreceptors, whereas the middle and inner layers harbored intermediary retinal neurons and ganglion cells, respectively. This particular arrangement of cells is reminiscent of what is found in the back of the eye.

At 72 days, stem cells derived from human blood formed an early retina structure, with specialized cells resembling photoreceptors (red) and ganglion cells (green) located within the outer and inner layers, respectively. Nuclei of cells within the middle layer are shown in blue. These layers are similar to those present during normal human eye development.

These retinal structures also showed proper connections that could allow the cells to communicate information. In the retina, light-sensitive photoreceptor cells along the back wall of the eye produce impulses that are ultimately transmitted through the optic nerve and then to the brain, and this allows. Because these layered retinal structures not only had the proper cell types, but also the proper connections, these findings suggest that it is possible to assemble human retinal cells into the rather complex retinal tissues found in an adult retina. This is extremely stupefying when one considers that these structures all started from a single blood sample.

There are several applications to which these structures might be subjected. They could be used to test drugs and study degenerative diseases of the retina such as retinitis pigmentosa (a major cause of blindness in children and young adults). Also, it might be possible one day to replace multiple layers of the retina in order to help patients with more widespread retinal damage.

Gamm said, “We don’t know how far this technology will take us, but the fact that we are able to grow a rudimentary retina structure from a patient’s blood cells is encouraging, not only because it confirms our earlier work using human skin cells, but also because blood as a starting source is convenient to obtain. This is a solid step forward.” He also added, “We were fortunate that CDI shared an interest in our work. Combining our lab’s expertise with that of CDI was critical to the success of this study.”

This work was published in the March 12, 2012 online issue of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science. The research is supported by the Foundation Fighting Blindness, the National Institutes of Health, the Retina Research Foundation, the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, the UW Eye Research Institute and the E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind, Inc.