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.

UC Davis Stem Cell Scientists Make Bladder Cells from Pluripotent Stem Cells


Patients who suffer from malformation of the spinal cord or have suffered a severe spinal cord injury sometimes have bladder malfunction as well. Replacing a poorly functioning bladder is a goal of regenerative medicine, but it is not an easy goal. The bladder is lined with a special cell population called “urothelium.” Urothelium is found throughout the urinary tract and it is highly elastic. Persuading stem cells to form a proper urothelium has proved difficult.

Urothelium
From http://ocw.tufts.edu/data/4/221158/221174_xlarge.jpg

Now scientists from the University of California, Davis (my alma mater), have succeeded in devising a protocol for differentiating human pluripotent stem cells into urothelium. The laboratory of Eric Kurzock, chief of the division of pediatric urologic surgery at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, published this work in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine. This work is quite exciting, since it provides a way to potentially replace bladder tissue for patients whose bladders are too small or do not function properly.

Kurzock explained: “Our goal is to use human stem cells to regenerate tissue in the lab that can be transplanted into patients to augment or replace their malfunctioning bladders,”

In order to make bladder cells in the laboratory, Kurzrock and his coworkers used two different types of human pluripotent stem cells. First, they used two types of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). The first came from laboratory cultures of human skin cells that were genetically engineered and cultured to form iPS cultures. The second iPS line was derived from umbilical cord blood cells that had been genetically reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state.

Even though further work is needed to establish that bladder tissues made from such stem cells are safe or effective for human patients, Kurzrock thinks that iPS cell–derived bladder grafts made from a from a patient’s own skin or umbilical cord blood cells represent the ideal tissue source for regenerative bladder treatments. This type of tissue would be optimal, he said, because it lowers the risk of immunological rejection that typifies most transplants.

One of the truly milestone developments in this research is the protocol Kurzrock and his colleagues developed to direct pluripotent stem cells to differentiate into bladder cells. This protocol was efficient and, most importantly, allowed the stem cells to proliferate in culture over a long period of time. This is crucial in order to have enough material for therapeutic purposes.

“What’s exciting about this discovery is that it also opens up an array of opportunities using pluripotent cells,” said Jan Nolta, professor and director of the UC Davis Stem Cell program and a co-author on the new study. “When we can reliably direct and differentiate pluripotent stem cells, we have more options to develop new and effective regenerative medicine therapies. The protocols we used to create bladder tissue also provide insight into other types of tissue regeneration.”

To hone their urothelium-differentiation protocol, Kurzrock and his colleagues used human embryonic stem cells obtained from the National Institutes of Health’s human stem cell repository. These cells were successfully differentiated into bladder cells. Afterwards, the Kurzrock group used the same protocol to coax iPS cells made from skin and umbilical cord blood into urothelium. Not only did these cells look like urothelium, but they also expressed the protein “uroplakin,” which is unique to the bladder and helps make it impermeable to toxins in urine.

In order to bring this protocol to the clinic, the cells must proliferate, differentiate and express bladder-specific proteins without depending on any animal or human products. They must do all these things independent of signals from other human cells, said Kurzrock. Therefore, for future research, Kurzrock and his colleagues plan to modify their laboratory cultures so that they will not require any animal and human products, which will allow use of the cells in patients.

Kurzrock’s primary goal as a physician is with children who suffer from spina bifida and other pediatric congenital disorders. Currently, when he surgically reconstructs a child’s defective bladder, he must use a segment of their own intestine. Because the function of intestine, which absorbs food, is almost the opposite of bladder, bladder reconstruction with intestinal tissue may lead to serious complications, including urinary stone formation, electrolyte abnormalities and cancer. According to Kurzrock, developing a stem cell alternative not only will be less invasive, but should prove to be more effective, too, he said.

Another patient group who might benefit from this research is bladder cancer patients. More than 70,000 Americans each year are diagnosed with bladder cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. “Our study may provide important data for basic research in determining the deviations from normal biological processes that trigger malignancies in developing bladder cells,” said Nolta. More than 90 percent of patients who need replacement bladder tissue are adults with bladder cancer. Kurzrock said “cells from these patients’ bladders cannot be used to generate tissue grafts because the implanted tissue could carry a high risk of becoming cancerous. On the other hand, using bladder cells derived from patients’ skin may alleviate that risk. Our next experiments will seek to prove that these cells are safer.”

Repopulation of Damaged Livers With Skin-Derived Stem Cells


Patients with severe liver disease must receive a liver transplant. This major procedure requires that the patient survives major surgery and then takes anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. In general, liver transplant patients tend to fair pretty well. The one-year survival rate of liver transplant patients approaches 90% (see O’Mahony and Goss, Texas Heart Institute Journal 2012 39(6): 874-875).

A potentially better way to treat liver failure patients would be to take their own liver cells, convert them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), differentiate them into liver cells, and use these liver cells to regenerate the patient’s liver. Such a treatment would contain a patient’s own liver cells and would not require anti-rejection drugs.

Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs are made from genetically-engineered adult cells that have had four specific genes (Oct4, Klf4, Sox2, and c-Myc) introduced into them. As a result of the heightened expression of these genes, some of the adult cells dedifferentiate and are reprogrammed into cells that resemble embryonic stem cells. Normally, this procedure is relatively inefficient, slow, and induces new mutations into the engineered cells. Also, when iPSCs are differentiated into liver cells (hepatocytes), they do not adequately proliferate after differentiation, and they also fail to properly function the way adult hepatocytes do.

New work from laboratories at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has differentiated human hepatocytes by means of a modified technique that bypasses the pluripotency stage. These cells were then used to repopulate mouse livers.

“I really like this paper. It’s a step forward in the field,” said Alejandro Soto-Gutiérrez, assistant professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the work. “The concept is reprogramming, but with a shortcut, which is really cool.”

Research teams led by Holger Willenbring and Sheng Ding isolated human skin cells called fibroblasts and infected them with engineered viruses that forced the expression of three genes: OCT4, SOX2, and KLF4. These transduced cells were grown in culture in the presence of proteins called growth factors and small molecules in order to induce reprogramming of the cells into the primary embryonic germ layer known as endoderm. In the embryo, the endoderm is the inner-most layer of cells that forms the gastrointestinal tract and its associated structures (liver, pancreas, and so on). Therefore, the differentiation of adult cells into endodermal progenitor cells provides a handy way to form a cell type that readily divides and can differentiate into liver cells.

“We divert the cells on their path to pluripotency,” explained coauthor Holger Willenbring, associate professor of surgery at UCSF. “We still take advantage of what is intrinsic to reprogramming, that the cells are becoming very plastic; they’ve become flexible in what kind of cell type they can be directed towards.”

The authors called these cells induced multipotent progenitor cells (iMPCs). The iMPCs were easily differentiated into endodermal progenitor cells (iMPC-EPCs). These iMPC-EPCs were grown in culture with a cocktail of small molecules and growth factors to increase iMPC-EPC colony size while concomitantly maintain them in an endodermal state. Afterwards, Willenbring and others cultured these cells with factors and small molecules known to promote liver cell differentiation. When these iMPC-Hepatocytes (Heps) were transplanted into mice with damaged livers, the iMPC-Hep cells continued to divide at least nine months after transplantation. Furthermore, the transplanted cells matured and displayed gene expression profiles very similar to that of typical adult hepatocytes. Transplantation of iMPC-Heps also improved the survival of a mouse model of chronic liver failure about as well as did transplantation of adult hepatocytes.

“It is a breakthrough for us because it’s the first time that we’ve seen a cell that can actually repopulate a mouse’s liver,” said Willenbring. Willenbring strongly suspects that iMPCs are better able to repopulate the liver because the derivation of iMPC—rather than an iPSC—eliminates some steps along the path to generating hepatocytes. These iMPCs also possess the ability to proliferate in culture to generate sufficient quantities of cells for therapeutic purposes and, additionally, can functionally mature while retaining that proliferative ability to proliferate. Both of these features are important prerequisites for therapeutic applications, according to Willenbring.

Before this technique can enter clinical trials, more work must be done. For example: “The key to all of this is trying to generate cells that are identical to adult liver cells,” said Stephen Duncan, a professor of cell biology at Medical College of Wisconsin, who was not involved in the study. “You really need these cells to take on all of the functions of a normal liver cell.” Duncan explained that liver cells taken directly from a human adult might be able to repopulate the liver in this same mouse model at levels close to 90 percent.

Willenbring and his colleagues observed repopulation levels of 2 percent by iMPC-Heps, which is substantially better than the 0.05 percent repopulation typically accomplished by hepatocytes derived from iPSCs or embryonic stem cells. However: “As good as this is, the field will need greater levels of expansion,” said Ken Zaret of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who did not participate in the work. “But the question is: What is limiting the proliferative capacity of the cells?”

Zaret explained that it is not yet clear whether some aspect of how the cells were programmed that differed from how they normally develop could have an impact on how well the population expands after transplantation. “There still is a ways to go [sic],” he said, “but [the authors] were able to show much better long-term repopulation with human cells in the mouse model than other groups have.”

See S. Zhu et al., “Mouse liver repopulation with hepatocytes generated from human fibroblasts,” Nature, doi:10.1038/nature13020, 2014.