Mouse Blood Cells Reprogrammed into Blood Cell Stem Cells


Boston Children’s Hospital researchers have directly reprogrammed mature blood cells from mice into blood-forming hematopoietic stem cells by using a cocktail of eight different transcription factors.

These reprogrammed cells have been called induced hematopoietic stem stem cells or iHSCs. These cells have all the hallmarks of mature mouse HSCs and they have the capacity to self-renew and differentiate into all the blood cells that circulate throughout the body.

These findings are highly significant from a clinical perspective because they indicate that it might be entirely possible to directly reprogram a patient’s existing, mature blood cells into a hematopoietic stem cell for transplantation purposes. Such a procedure, known as hematopoietic stem cells transplantation or HSCT, is a common treatment for patients whose bone marrow has suffered irreparable damage due to environmental causes (heavy metals, chloramphenicol, etc) or disease (cancer). The problem with HSCT is finding a proper match for the patient and then procuring clinically significant quantities of high-quality bone marrow for HSCT.

Derrick J. Rossi, an investigator in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and Assistant Professor in the Department of Stem Cell & Regenerative Biology, explained: “HSCs comprise only about one in every 20,000 cells in the bone marrow. If we could generate autologous (a patient’s own) HSCs from other cells, it could be transformative for transplant medicine and for our ability to model diseases of blood development.”

Rossi and his collaborators have screened genes that are expressed in 40 different types of blood progenitor cells in mice. This screen identified 36 different genes that control the expression of the other genes. These 36 genes encode so-called “transcription factors,” which are proteins that bind to DNA and turn gene express on or shut it off.

Blood cell production tends to go from the stem cells to progeny cells called progenitor cells that can still divide to some limited extent, and to effector cells that are completely mature and, in most cases, do not divide (the exception is lymphocytes, which expand when activated by specific foreign substances called antigens).

Further work by Rossi and others identified six transcription factors (Hlf, Runx1t1, Pbx1, Lmo2, Zfp37, and Prdm5) of these 36 genes, plus two others that were not part of their original screen (N-Myc and Meis1) that could robustly reprogram myeloid progenitor cells or pro/pre B lymphocytes into iHSCs.

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To put these genes into these blood cells, Rossi and others uses souped-up viruses that introduced all either genes under the control of sequences that only allowed expression of these eight genes in the presence of the antibiotic doxycycline. Once these transfected cells were transplanted into mice, the recipient mice were treated with doxycycline, and the implanted cells formed HSCs.

When this experiment utilized mice that were unable to make their own blood cells, because their bone marrow had been wiped out, the implanted iHSCs reconstituted the bone marrow and blood cells of the recipient mice.

To further show that this reconstituted bone marrow was normal, high-quality bone marrow, Rossi and others used these recipient mice as bone marrow donors for sibling mice whose bone marrow had been wiped out. This experiment showed that the mice that had received the iHSCs had bone marrow that completely reconstituted the bone marrow of their siblings. This established that the iHSCs could completely reestablish the bone marrow of another mouse.

Thus Rossi and others had established that iHSCs could in fact created HSCs from progenitor cells, but could they do the same thing with mature blood cells that were not progenitor cells? Make that another yes. When Rossi and others transfected their eight-gene cocktail into mature myeloid cells, these mature cells also made high-quality iHSCs.

Rossi noted that no one has been able to culture HSCs in the laboratory for long periods of time. A few laboratories have managed expand HSCs in culture, but only on a limited basis for short periods of time (see Aggarwal R1, Lu J, Pompili VJ, Das H. Curr Mol Med. 2012 Jan;12(1):34-49).  In these experiments, Rossi used his laboratory mice as living culture systems to expand his HSCs, which overcomes the problems associated with growing these fussy stem cells in culture.

Gene expression studies of his iHSCs established that, from a gene expression perspective, the iHSCs were remarkably similar to HSCs isolated from adult mice.

This is certainly an exciting advance in regenerative medicine, but it is far from being translated into the clinic.  Can human blood progenitor cells also be directly reprogrammed using the same cocktail?  Can mature myeloid cells be successfully reprogrammed?  Will some non-blood cell be a better starting cell for iHSC production in humans?  As you can see there are many questions that have to be satisfactorily answered before this procedure can come to the clinic.

Nevertheless, Rossi and his team has succeeded where others have failed and the results are remarkable.  HSCs can be generated and transplanted with the use of only a few genes.  This is certainly the start of what will hopefully be a fruitful regenerative clinical strategy.

On a personal note, my mother passed about almost a decade ago after a long battle with myelodysplastic syndrome, which is a pre-leukemic condition in which the bone marrow fails to make mature red blood cells.  Instead the bone marrow fills up with immature red blood cells and the patient has to survive on blood transfusions.

The reason for this condition almost certainly stems from defective HSCs that do not make normal progeny.  Therefore the possibility of using a patient’s own cells to make new HSCs that can repopulate the bone marrow is a joyful discovery for me to read about, even though it is some ways from the clinic at this point.

Human Embryonic Stem Cell Communication Network Discovered


Cells use a variety of mechanisms to talk to each other. These signaling pathways are called “signal transduction” pathways, and they vary extensively from one cell type to another.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that human embryonic stem cells signal to each other. The precise signal transduction pathway that human embryonic stem cells use to communicate with each other is the subject of a research project from a laboratory in Singapore.

Human embryonic stem cells or hESCs can differentiate into any adult cell type. The factors that keep hESCs in their pluripotent state are of interest to stem cell scientists because they might allow them to better direct the differentiation of hESCs or even grow them in culture better.

Cell-to-cell communication is vitally important to multicellular organisms. The coordinated development of tissues in the embryo that culminate in the formation of specific organs requires that cells receive signals and respond accordingly. If there are errors in these signals, the cells will respond differently and the embryo will either be grossly abnormal, or the cell might divide uncontrollably to make a tumor.

Human ESCs communicate by means of a signal transduction pathway known as the extracellular regulated kinase or ERK pathway.  The ERK signal transduction pathway begins with the binding of a growth factor receptor by a growth factor.  These growth factors are almost always bound to the extracellular matrix, which is the goo that surrounds cells and provides a structure in which the cells live.  The binding of the receptor causes the receptor to pair with another copy of itself, and that activates the bits of the receptor found inside the cell (tyrosine kinase domain for the interested).  The activated receptor attaches phosphates to itself, which causes particular proteins to find and bind the receptor, which recruits particular proteins to the cell membrane.  One of the recruited proteins is a protein kinase called RAF.  RAF attaches phosphate groups to the protein kinase MEK, and MEK attaches phosphate groups to the protein kinase ERK.  Once ERK has a phosphate attached to it, it can move into the nucleus and regulate transcription factors involved in the control of gene expression.  Thus a phenomenon that began at the cell membrane culminates in a change in gene expression.

ERK_pathway

Stem cell scientists a A*STAR’s Genomic Institute of Singapore and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Genetics (MPIMG) in Berlin, Germany studied how genetic information is accessed in hESCs. To do this they mapped the kinase interactions across the entire human genome (kinases are enzymes that attach phosphate groups to other molecules) and discovered that ERK2, a protein that belongs to the ERK signal transduction pathway targets important sites such as non-coding genes, and histones, cell cycle, metabolism, and stem cell-specific genes.

The ERK signaling pathway involves an additional protein called ELK1 that interacts with ERK2. However, this research team discovered that ELK1 has a second, totally opposite function. At genomic sites not targeted by ERK signaling, ELK1 silences genetic information, which keeps the cell in its undifferentiated state.

ELK1 Interaction with ERK2

The authors propose a model that integrates this bi-directional control to keep the cell in the stem cell state, in which genes necessary for differentiation are repressed by ELK1 that is not associated with ERK2, and cell-cycle, translation and other pluripotency genes are activated by ELK1 in association with ERK2 or ERK2 plus other transcription factors.

Model of the Transcriptional Regulatory Network of ERK2 Signaling in hESCsTranscription factors such as ELK1 link ERK2 to sequence-specific regulation of gene expression. ERK2 and ELK1 colocalization defines three distinct modules that target different sets of genes. In this model, combinatorial binding of ERK2 and ELK1 with transcription factors, chromatin regulators, and the basal transcriptional machinery integrates external signaling into the cell-type-specific regulatory network. In hESCs, ERK2 and ELK1 participate in the regulation of pluripotency and self-renewal pathways, whereas differentiation genes are repressed.
Model of the Transcriptional Regulatory Network of ERK2 Signaling in hESCsTranscription factors such as ELK1 link ERK2 to sequence-specific regulation of gene expression. ERK2 and ELK1 colocalization defines three distinct modules that target different sets of genes. In this model, combinatorial binding of ERK2 and ELK1 with transcription factors, chromatin regulators, and the basal transcriptional machinery integrates external signaling into the cell-type-specific regulatory network. In hESCs, ERK2 and ELK1 participate in the regulation of pluripotency and self-renewal pathways, whereas differentiation genes are repressed.

First author Jonathan Göke from Stem Cell and Developmental Biology at the GIS said, “The ERK signaling pathway has been known for many years, but this is the first time we are able to see the full spectrum of the response in the genome of stem cells. We have found many biological processes that are associated with this signaling pathway, but we also found new and unexpected patterns such as this dual-mode of ELK1. It will be interesting to see how this communication network changes in other cells, tissues, or in disease.”

A co-author of this study, Martin Vingron said, “A remarkable feature of this study is, how information was extracted by computational means from the data.”

Professor Ng Huck Hui, managing author of this paper, added, “This is an important study because it describes the cell’s signaling network and its integration into the general regulatory network. Understanding the biology of embryonic stem cells is a first step to understanding the capabilities and caveats of stem cells in future medical applications.”

Stem Cell-Promoting Gene Also Promotes the Growth of Head and Neck Cancer


Nanog is a very funny name for a gene, but the Nanog gene is an essential part of the cellular machinery that keeps embryonic stem cells from differentiating and maintains them in a pluripotent state. Unfortunately, Nanog also has other roles if it is mis-expressed and that includes in the genesis of cancers of the head and neck.

Nanog function during development
Nanog function during development

This study emerged from work done by researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital, and Richard J. Solove Research Institute or OSUCCC-James. Since Nanog has been studied in some depth, understanding Nanog activity might provide vital clues in the design of targeted drugs and reagents for treating particular cancers.

“This study defines a signaling axis that is essential for head and neck cancer progression, and our findings show that this axis may be disrupted at three key steps,” said Quintin Pan, associate professor of otolaryngology at OSUCCC-James and principal investigator in this research effort. “Targeted drugs that are designed to inhibit any or all of these three steps might greatly improve the treatment of head and neck cancer.”

What kind of signaling axis is Dr. Pan referring to? An enzyme called protein kinase C-epsilon or PKC-epsilon can place phosphate groups on the Nanog protein. Phosphate groups are negatively charged and are also quite bulky. Attaching such chemical groups to a protein can effectively change its structure and function. In the case of Nanog, phosphorylation of stabilizes it and activates it.

Phosphorylated Nanog proteins can bind together to form a dimer, which attracts a third protein to it; p300. This third protein, p300, in combination with the paired Nanog proteins acts as a potent activator of gene expression of particular genes, in particular a gene called Bmi1. When expressed at high levels, Bmi1 stimulates the proliferation of cells in an uncontrolled fashion.

Bmi1 - Nanog interaction

“Our work shows that the PKCepsilon/Nanog/Bmi1 signaling axis is essential to promote head and neck cancer,” Pan said. “And it provides initial evidence that the development of inhibitors that block critical points in this axis might yield a potent collection of targeted anti-cancer therapeutics that could be valuable for the treatment of head and neck cancer.”

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.