Stem Cell Transplant Repairs the Damage that Results from Inflammatory Bowel Disease

A source of stem cells from the digestive tract can repair a type of inflammatory bowel disease when transplanted into mice has been identified by British and Danish scientists.

This work resulted from a collaboration between stem cell scientists at the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council/Cambridge Stem Cell Institute at Cambridge University, and the Biotech Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC) at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. This research paves the way for patient-specific regenerative therapies for inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis.

All tissues in out body probably contain a stem cell population of some sort, and these tissue-specific stem cells are responsible for the lifelong maintenance of these tissues, and, ultimately, organs. Organ-specific stem cells tend to be restricted in their differentiation abilities to the cell types within that organ. Therefore, stem cells from the digestive tract will tend to differentiate into cell types typically found in the digestive tract, and skin-based stem cells will usually form cell types found in the skin.

When this research team examined developing intestinal tissue in mouse fetuses, they discovered a stem cell population that differed from the adult stem cells that have already been described in the gastrointestinal tract. These new-identified cells actively divided and could be grown in the laboratory over a long period of time without terminally differentiating into adult cell types. When exposed to the right conditions, however, these cells could differentiate into mature intestinal tissue.


Could these cells be used to repair a damaged bowel? To address this question, this team transplanted these cells into mice that suffered from a type of inflammatory bowel disease, and within three hours the stem cells has attached to the damaged areas of the mouse intestine. integrated into the intestine, and contributed to the repair of the damaged tissue.

“We found that the cells formed a living plaster (British English for a bandage) over the damaged gut,” said Jim Jensen, a Wellcome Trust researcher and Lundbeck Foundation fellow, who led the study. “They seemed to response to the environment they had been placed in and matured accordingly to repair the damage. One of the risks of stem cell transplants like this is that the cells will continue to expand and form a tumor, but we didn’t see any evidence of that with this immature stem cell population from the gut.”

Because these cells were derived from fetal intestines, Jensen and his team sought to establish a new source of intestinal progenitor cells.  Therefore, Jensen and others isolated cells with similar characteristics from both mice and humans, and  made similar cells similar cells by reprogramming adult human cells in to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and growing them in the appropriate conditions.  Because these cells grew into small spheres that consisted of intestinal tissue, they called these cells Fetal Enterospheres (FEnS).

Established cultures of FEnS expressed lower levels of Lgr5 than mature progenitors and grew in the presence of the Wnt antagonist Dkk1 (Dickkopf).  New cultures can be induced to form mature intestinal organoids by exposure to the signaling molecule Wnt3a. Following transplantation in a model for colon injury, FEnS contributed to regeneration of the epithelial lining of the colon by forming epithelial crypt-like structures that expressed region-specific differentiation markers.

“We’ve identified a source of gut stem cells that can be easily expanded in the laboratory, which could have huge implications for treating human inflammatory bowel diseases. The next step will be to see whether the human cells behave in the same way in the mouse transplant system and then we can consider investigating their use in patients,” Jensen said.

Developmental Regression: Making Placental Cells from Embryonic Stem Cells

A research group from Copenhagen, Denmark has discovered a way to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells. In order to do this, the embryonic stem cells must be developmentally regressed so that they can become wither placenta-making cells rather than inner cell mass cells.

This study is significant for two reasons. First of all, it was thought to be impossible to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells because embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from the inner cell mass cells of 4-5-day old human blastocysts. These early embryos begin as single-celled embryos that divide to form 12-16-cell embryos that undergo compaction. At this time, the cells on the outside become trophoblast cells, which will form the trophectoderm and form the placenta and the cells on the inside will form the inner cell mass, which will form the embryo proper and a few extraembryonic structures. Since ESCs are derived from inner cell mass cells that have been isolated and successfully cultured, they have already committed to a cell fate that is not placental. Therefore, to differentiate ESCs into placental cells would require that ESCs developmentally regress, which is very difficult to do in culture.

Secondly, if this could be achieved, several placental abnormalities could be more easily investigated, For example, pre-eclampsia is a very serious prenatal condition that is potentially fatal to the mother, and is linked to abnormalities of the placenta. Studying a condition such as pre-eclampsia in a culture system would definitely be a boon to gynecological research.

Because human ESCs can express genes that are characteristic of trophoblast cells if they are treated with a growth factor called Bone Morphogen Protein 4 (BMP4), it seems possible to make placental cells from them (see Xu R.H., Chen X., Li D.S., Li R., Addicks G.C., Glennon C., Zwaka T.P., Thomson J.A. BMP4 initiates human embryonic stem cell differentiation to trophoblast. Nat. Biotechnol. 2002;20:1261–1264, and Xu RH. Methods Mol Med. 2006;121:189-202). However, a study by Andreia S. Bernardo and others from the laboratory of Roger Pedersen at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute strongly suggested that BMP4 treatment, even in the absence of FGF signaling (another growth factor that has to be absent for BMP4 to induce trophoblast-like gene expression from ESCs) the particular genes induced by BMP4 are not exclusive to trophoblast cells and more closely resemble mesodermal gene profiles (see AS Bernardo, et al., Cell Stem Cell. 2011 Aug 5;9(2):144-55).

Into the fray of this debate comes a paper by stem cells scientists at the Danish Stem Cell Center at the University of Copenhagen that shows that it is possible to rewind the developmental state of ESCs.

In this paper, Josh Brickman and his team discovered that if they maintained mouse ESCs under specific conditions, they could cause the cells to regress into very early pre-blastocyst embryonic cells that can form trophoblast cells or ICM cells.

“It was a very exciting moment when we tested the theory, said Brinkman. “We found that not only can we make adult cells but also placenta, in fact we got precursors of placenta, yolk sac as well as embryo from just one cell.”

“This new discovery is crucial for the basic understanding of the nature of embryonic stem cells and could provide a way to model the development of the organism as a whole, rather than just the embryonic portion,” said Sophie Morgani, graduate student and first author of this paper. “In this way we may gain greater insight into conditions where extraembryonic development is impaired, as in the case of miscarriages.”

To de-differentiate the ESCs, Brinkman and his colleagues grew them in a solution called “2i.”  This 2i culture medium contained inhibitors of MEK and GSK3.  MEK is a protein kinase that is a central participant in the “MAP kinase signaling pathway, which is a signaling pathway that is central to cell growth and survival.  This particular signaling pathway is the target of the anthrax toxin, which illustrates its importance,  GSK3 stands for “glycogen synthase kinase 3,” which is a signaling protein in the Wnt pathway.

When the mouse ESCs were grown in 2i medium they expressed genes normally found only in pre-blastocyst embryos (Hex, for example).  Therefore, the 2i medium directs mouse ESCs to de-differentiate.  When ESCs grown in 2i were implanted into mouse embryos, they divided and differentiated into cells that were found in placental and embryonic fates.  This strongly argues that the ESCs grown in 2i became pre-blastocyst embryonic cells.  When the ESCs grown in 2i were also grown with LIF, which stands for “leukemia inhibitory factor” (LIF is a protein required for the maintenance of mouse ESCs in culture), the 2i cells were maintained in culture and grew while maintaining their pre-blastocyst status.  These cells differentiated into placental cells, embryonic or fetal cells.  Essentially, the 2i-cultured cells when from being pluripotent to being “totipotent,” or able to form ALL cell types in the embryo, fetus, or the adult.

ESC de-differentiation in totipotence

“In our study we have been able to see the full picture unifying LIF’s functions: what LIF really does, is to support the very early embryo state, where the cells can make both embryonic cells and placenta. This fits with LIFs’ role in supporting implantation,” said Brinkman.

This study definitively shows that ESCs are NOT embryos.  ESCs can regress in their development but embryos develop forward, becoming more committed as they develop and more restricted in the cell fates they can form.  This should effectively put the nail in the coffin of Lee Silver’s argument against Robert P. George that embryonic stem cells are embryos.  They are definitely and unequivocally, since embryos do NOT develop in reverse, but ESCs can and do.

Robert P. George argues that early human embryos, like the kind used to make ESCs are very young  members of the human race and deserve, at the minimum, the right not to be harmed.  Silver counters that George’s argument is inconsistent because George would not extend the same right to an ESC cell line, which is the same as an embryo.  His reasoning is that mouse ESCs can be transplanted into other mouse embryos that have four copies of each chromosome.  The messed up mouse embryo will make the placenta and the ESCs will make the inner cell mass and the mouse will develop and even come to term.  This is called tetraploid rescue, and Silver thinks that this procedure is a minor manipulation, but that it shows that ESCs are functionally the same as embryos.

I find Silver’s argument wanting on just about all fronts.  This is not a minor manipulation.  The tetraploid embryo is bound for certain death, but the implanted ESCs use the developmental context of the tetraploid embryo to find their place in it and make the inner cell mass.  The ESCs do not do it all on their own, but instead work with the tetraploid embryo in a complex developmental give-and-take to make an embryo with the placenta from one animal and the embryo proper from another.

Thus Silver’s first argument does not demonstrate what he says it does.  All it demonstrates is that ESCs can contribute to an embryo, which is something we already knew and expected.  This new data completes blows Silver’s assertion out of the water, since ESCs can take developmental steps backward and embryos by their very nature and programming, do not.  Thus these two entities are distinct entities and are not identical.  The early embryo is a very young human person, full stop.  We should stop dismembering them in laboratories just to stem our scientific curiosity.