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Stem Cells

Cardiovascular Medicine, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Tension helps heart cells develop normally, Stanford study shows

Tension helps heart cells develop normally, Stanford study shows

heart_newsTension might not be fun for us, but it looks like it’s critical for our hearts. So much so that without a little tension heart cells in the lab fail to develop normally.

This is a finding that took a mechanical engineer looking at a biological problem to solve. For many years now scientists have been able to mature stem cells into beating clumps of cells in the lab. But although those cells could beat, they didn’t do it very well. They don’t produce much force, can’t maintain a steady rhythm and would be a failure at pumping actual blood.

Beth Pruitt, PhD, a Stanford mechanical engineer, realized that in our bodies heart cells are under considerable tension, and thought that might be critical to how the cells develop.

She and postdoctoral scholar Alexandre Ribeiro started investigating how heart cells matured in different shapes and under different amounts of tension. They found a combination that produces normal looking cells with strong contractions.
The work could be useful for scientists hoping to replace animal heart cells as the gold standard for identifying heart-related side effects of drugs. Those cells are quite different from our own and often fail to detect side effects that could damage hearts in people taking the drug.

In my story about the work, I quote Ribeiro saying, “We hope this can be a drop-in replacement for animal cells, and potentially instead of having to do individual recordings from each cell we could use video analysis.”

Previously: A new era for stem cells in cardiac medicine? A simple, effective way to generate patient-specific heart muscle cells and “Clinical trial in a dish” may make common medicines safer, say Stanford scientists
Photo by Alexandre Ribeiro

Cardiovascular Medicine, Chronic Disease, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Patching broken hearts: Stanford researchers regrow lost cells

Patching broken hearts: Stanford researchers regrow lost cells

Design 1_2Most heart attack survivors face a long and progressive course of heart failure due to damage done to the heart muscle. Now, in a study published in the journal Nature, researchers are reporting a method of delivering a missing protein to the lining of the damaged heart that regenerates heart muscle cells — cardiomyocytes — killed off during a heart attack.

The study, which was conducted in animal models, offers hope for future treatments in humans, according to the senior author of the study. “This finding opens the door to a completely revolutionary treatment,” Pilar Ruiz-Lozano, PhD, told me. “There is currently no effective [way] to reverse the scarring in the heart after heart attacks.”

The delivery system that researchers used in this study is a biodesigned tissue-like patch that gets stitched directly onto the damaged portion of the heart. The protein Fstl1 is mixed into the ingredients of the patch, and the patch, made of an acellular collagen, eventually gets absorbed into the heart leaving the protein behind. Our press release explains how the patch came to be:

The researchers discovered that a particular protein, Fstl1, plays a key role in regenerating cardiomyocytes. The protein is normally found in the epicardium — the outermost layer of cells surrounding the heart — but it disappears from there after a heart attack. They next asked what would happen if they were to add Fstl1 back to the heart. To do this, they sutured a collagen patch that mimicked the epicardium to the damaged muscle. When the patch was loaded with Fstl1, it caused new cardiomyocytes to regenerate in the damaged tissue.

In reading over the study, I was particularly interested in what an engineered tissue-like patch applied to a living heart looked like – and how exactly the patch got made. I called one of the study’s first authors and went to see him in his lab.

Vahid Serpooshan, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in cardiology at Stanford, told me he can make a patch in about 20 minutes. It’s a bit like making Jell-O, he said; collagen and other ingredients get mixed together then poured into a mold. Serpooshan uses molds of various sizes depending on what kind of a heart the patch will be surgically stitched onto.

“The damaged heart tissue has no mechanical integrity,” Serpooshan said. “Adding the patch is like fixing a tire… Once the patch is stitched onto the heart tissue, the cardiac cells start migrating to the patch. They just love the patch area…”

Previously: Stanford physician provides insight on use of aspirin to help keep heart attacks and cancer away, Collagen patch speeds healing after heart attacks in mice and Big data approach identifies new stent drug that could help prevent heart attacks
Image, of a patch stitched to the right side of the heart, by Vahid Serpooshan

Evolution, Genetics, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Chimps and humans face-off in Stanford study on inter-species variation

Chimps and humans face-off in Stanford study on inter-species variation

wysocka_illustration (6)Our nearest primate relative, the chimpanzee, shares much of its genome with us. And yet, despite the astounding similarities in our DNA sequences, it’s not difficult to discern the face of one species from the other.

Developmental biologist Joanna Wysocka, PhD, researches, among other things, how human faces are formed during early embryonic development. She and graduate student Sara Prescott compared gene expression patterns between humans and chimpanzees in the hopes of identifying not just what makes us recognizably human, but also how human faces also differ among themselves.

They describe their work, which was published today in Cell, as a kind of “cellular anthropology” that can illuminate important genomic tweaks in our recent evolutionary past. In particular, they found that the critical differences between the two species lie not in the DNA sequence of the genes themselves, but in when and where (and to what levels) the genes are made into proteins during development. These changes have led to important, human-specific adaptations. As Wysocka explained in our release:

We are trying to understand the regulatory changes in our DNA that occurred during recent evolution and make us different from the great apes. In particular, we are interested in craniofacial structures, which have undergone a number of adaptations in head shape, eye placement and facial structure that allow us to house larger brains, walk upright and even use our larynx for complex speech.

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Cancer, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

A stem cell “kill switch” may make therapies safer, say Stanford researchers

A stem cell "kill switch" may make therapies safer, say Stanford researchers

3225255407_596aa5bdff_zStem cell biologist Hiromitsu Nakauchi, MD, PhD, and his colleagues published an interesting article today about how to use stem cell technology to boost our body’s own immune cells to fight cancer or chronic viral infections like HIV or Epstein Barr virus. Because there’s a possible cancer risk with the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, in humans, he and his colleagues have devised an innovative way to specifically eliminate these cells within the body if they start to cause problems. Their research appears today in Stem Cell Reports.

As Nakauchi explained to me in an email:

The discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells created promising new avenues for therapies. However, the tumorigenic potential of undifferentiated iPSCs is a major safety concern that must be addressed before iPS cell-based therapies can be routinely used in the clinic.

The researchers studied a type of immune cell called a cytotoxic T cell. These cells recognize specific sequences, or antigens, on the surface of other cells. Some antigens indicate that the cell is infected with a virus; others are found on cells that have become cancerous. When a cytotoxic T cells sees these antigens, it moves in to kill the cell and remove the threat.

In order to ensure that our immune systems recognize the widest variety of antigens, developing T cells randomly shuffle their genes to create unique antigen receptors. Researchers have found that it’s possible to identify, and isolate, T cell populations that specifically recognize cancer cells. By growing those cells in the laboratory, and then injecting them back into a patient, clinicians can give a boost to the immune response that can help kill tumor cells. The technique is known as adoptive immunotherapy, and it’s shown promise in treating melanoma. However, these cytotoxic T cells can become exhausted as they fight the cancer and become less effective over time.

Recently researchers in Nakauchi’s lab showed that it’s possible to create induced pluripotent stem cells from cytotoxic T cells. These iPS cells are then induced to again become cytotoxic T cells. These rejuvenated T cells, or rejT cells, recognize the same antigen they did before their brief dip in the pluripotency pool, but they are far more sprightly than the cells from which they were derived – they can divide many more times and have longer telomeres (an indicator of youthfulness).

So far, so good. But, as Nakauchi mentioned above, iPS cells carry their own set of risks. Because they are by definition pluripotent (they can become any cell in the body), they can easily grow out of control. In fact, one way of proving a cell’s pluripotency is to inject it into an animal and see if it forms a type of tumor called a teratoma, which is made up of multiple cell types.

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Cancer, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Liver stem cell identified in mice

Liver stem cell identified in mice

Image of liver stem cellsAn elusive quarry has finally been chased to ground. Or, more accurately, to the central vein of one of our most important organs: the liver. Developmental biologist Roel Nusse, PhD, and visiting scholar and gastroenterologist Bruce Wang, MD, announced the identification of the liver stem cell in mice today in Nature. The finding will help researchers better understand liver biology and disease. It may also aid in the decades-long quest to find a reliable and efficient way to grow liver cells, called hepatocytes, in the laboratory for study and to test the effect of drugs.

Until now, researchers had assumed that all hepatocytes were created equal. And none of them seemed to have stem-cell-like traits. As Nusse described in our release:

There’s always been a question as to how the liver replaces dying hepatocytes. Most other tissues have a dedicated population of cells that can divide to make a copy of themselves, which we call self-renewal, and can also give rise to the more-specialized cells that make up that tissue. But there never was any evidence for a stem cell in the liver.

Wang and Nusse took a different approach. They looked in the liver to see which cells, if any, were expressing a gene called Axin2. Axin2 is expressed when a cell encounters a member of the Wnt protein family. Years of previous work in the Nusse lab have shown that Wnt family members are critical regulators of embryonic development and stem cell maintenance.

They found a small population of Axin2-expressing hepatocytes with just two copies of each chromosome surrounding the central vein of the liver. These cells can both self-renew and divide to create new hepatocytes that migrate outward from the vein. As they migrate, these cells become polyploid and begin to express hepatocyte-specific genes. Eventually much of the animals’ livers were made up of these stem-cell descendents. As Wang described:

People in the field have always thought of hepatocytes as a single cell type. And yet the cell we identified is clearly different from others in the liver. Maybe we should accept that there may be several subtypes of hepatocytes, potentially with different functions.

If this result in mice is also found to be true in humans, it’s possible that the liver stem cells may be easier to grow in the laboratory that normal hepatocytes. This would enable researchers to test the effect of drugs under development on human liver cells before they are tested in people (my colleague Bruce Goldman wrote about another potential solution to this problem last year). As Wang explained:

The most common reason that promising new drugs for any type of condition fail is that they are found to be toxic to liver. Researchers have been trying for decades to find a way to maintain hepatocytes in the laboratory on which to test the effects of potential medications before trying them in humans. Perhaps we haven’t been culturing the right subtype. These stem cells might be more likely to fare well in culture.

The finding opens the doors to answering other important questions as well, said Wang: “Does liver cancer arise from a specific subtype of cells? This model also gives us a way to understand how chromosome number is controlled. Does the presence of the Wnt proteins keep the stem cells in a diploid state? These are fundamental biological questions we can now begin to address.”

Previously: Which way is up? Stem cells take cues from localized signals, say Stanford scientists and The best toxicology lab: a mouse with a human liver
Photo of liver stem cells (red) and their progeny (green) by Bruce Wang

Genetics, In the News, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells, Technology

CRISPR marches forward: Stanford scientists optimize use in human blood cells

CRISPR marches forward: Stanford scientists optimize use in human blood cells

The CRISPR news just keeps coming. As we’ve described here before, CRISPR is a breakthrough way of editing the genome of many organisms, including humans — a kind of biological cut-and-paste function that is already transforming scientific and clinical research. However, there are still some significant scientific hurdles that exist when attempting to use the technique in cells directly isolated from human patients (these are called primary cells) rather than human cell lines grown for long periods of time in the laboratory setting.

Now pediatric stem cell biologist Matthew Porteus, MD, PhD, and postdoctoral scholars Ayal Hendel, PhD, and Rasmus Bak, PhD, have collaborated with researchers at Santa Clara-based Agilent Research Laboratories to show that chemically modifying the guide RNAs tasked with directing the site of genome snipping significantly enhances the efficiency of editing in human primary blood cells — an advance that brings therapies for human patients closer. The research was published yesterday in Nature Biotechnology.

As Porteus, who hopes to one day use the technique to help children with genetic blood diseases like sickle cell anemia, explained to me in an email:

We have now achieved the highest rates of editing in primary human blood cells. These frequencies are now high enough to compete with the other genome editing platforms for therapeutic editing in these cell types.

Porteus and Hendel previously developed a way to identify how frequently the CRISPR system does (or does not) modify the DNA where scientists tell it. Hendel characterizes the new research as something that will allow industrial-scale manufacturing of pharmaceutical-grade CRISPR reagents. As he told me:

Our research shows that scientists can now modify the CRISPR technology to improve its activity and specificity, as well as to open new doors for its use it for imaging, biochemistry, epigenetic, and gene activation or repression studies.

Rasmus agrees, saying, “Our findings will not only benefit researchers working with primary cells, but it will also accelerate the translation of CRISPR gene editing into new therapies for patients.”


(Those of you wanting a thorough primer on CRISPR —how it works and what could be done with it — should check out Carl Zimmer’s comprehensive article in Quanta magazine. If you prefer to learn by listening (perhaps, as I sometimes do, while on the treadmill), I found this podcast from Radiolab light, but interesting.)

Previously: Policing the editor: Stanford scientists devise way to monitor CRISPR effectiveness and “It’s not just science fiction anymore”: Childx speakers talk stem cell and gene therapy


Applied Biotechnology, In the News, Research, Stem Cells, Transplants

“Supplying each cell with a scuba tank”: New advances in tissue engineering

"Supplying each cell with a scuba tank": New advances in tissue engineering

membrane-article.jpgResearchers in the U.K. have found a way to make growing synthetic tissue more sustainable. At present, the size of engineered tissues is limited because the cells die from lack of oxygen when the pieces get too big. By adding an oxygen-carrying protein to the stem cells prior to combining them with tissue scaffolding, the researchers overcame this problem.

The study, led by Adam Perriman, PhD, research fellow at the University of Bristol’s Synthetic Biology Research Centre, and Anthony Hollander, PhD, professor of integrative biology at the University of Liverpool, was published yesterday in Nature Communications. The tissue they were fabricating was cartilage, but the process could potentially be applied to other tissues, as well.

Perriman describes the findings in a press release:

We were surprised and delighted to discover that we could deliver the necessary quantity [of oxygen] to the cells to supplement their oxygen requirements. It’s like supplying each cell with its own scuba tank, which it can use to breathe from when there is not enough oxygen in the local environment.

Hollander also comments on the significance of the research:

We have already shown that stem cells can help create parts of the body that can be successfully transplanted into patients, but we have now found a way of making their success even better. Growing large organs remains a huge challenge but with this technology we have overcome one of the major hurdles.

Creating larger pieces of cartilage gives us a possible way of repairing some of the worst damage to human joint tissue, such as the debilitating changes seen in hip or knee osteoarthritis or the severe injuries caused by major trauma, for example in road traffic accidents or war injuries.

Previously: Building bodies, one organ at a time, How Stanford researchers are engineering materials that mimic those found in our own bodies and A brief look at “caring” for engineered tissue
Photo by Warwick Bromley

Autism, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Brain cell spheres in a lab dish mimic human cortex, Stanford study says

Brain cell spheres in a lab dish mimic human cortex, Stanford study says


Mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia are notoriously difficult to study at the molecular level. Understandably, people are reluctant to donate pieces of living brain for study, and postmortem tissue lets researchers see the structure, but not the function, of the cells.

Now researchers in the laboratories of psychiatrist Sergiu Pasca, MD, and neurobiologist Ben Barres, MD, PhD, have found a way to make balls of cells that mimic the activity of the human cortex. They use a person’s skin cells, so the resulting “human cortical spheroid” has the same genetic composition as the donor. The research was published in Nature Methods yesterday.

According to our release:

Previous attempts to create patient-specific neural tissue for study have either generated two-dimensional colonies of immature neurons that do not create functional synapses, or required an external matrix on which to grow the cells in a series of laborious and technically difficult steps.

In contrast, the researchers found they were able to easily make hundreds of what they’ve termed “human cortical spheroids” using a single human skin sample. These spheroids grow to be as large as 5 millimeters in diameter and can be maintained in the laboratory for nine months or more. They exhibit complex neural network activity and can be studied with techniques well-honed in animal models.

The researchers, which include neonatology fellow Anca Pasca, MD, and graduate student Steven Sloan, hope to use the technique to help understand how the human brain develops, and what sometimes goes wrong. As described by Barres:

The power and promise of this new method is extraordinary. For instance, for developmental brain disorders, one could take skin cells from any patient and literally replay the development of their brain in a culture dish to figure out exactly what step of development went awry — and how it might be corrected.

The research is starting to garner attention, including this nice article from Wired yesterday. Pasca’s eager to note, however, that he’s not working to create entire brains, which would be ethically and technically challenging, to say the least. But simply generating even a few of the cell types in the cortex will give researchers a much larger canvas with which to study some devastating conditions. As Pasca notes in our release:

I am a physician by training. We are often very limited in the therapeutic options we can offer patients with mental disorders. The ability to investigate in a dish neuronal and glial function, as well as network activity, starting from patient’s own cells, has the potential to bring novel insights into psychiatric disorders and their treatment.

Previously: More than just glue, glial cells challenge neuron’s top slot and Star-shaped cells nab new starring role in sculpting brain circuits
Photo of spheroid cross-section by Anca Pasca

Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Near approval: A stem cell gene therapy developed by Stanford researcher

Near approval: A stem cell gene therapy developed by Stanford researcher

It has been a momentous month for Stanford researcher Maria Grazia Roncarolo, MD. Following decades of research in Roncarolo’s lab and the clinic, pharmaceutical company Glaxo SmithKline has applied for final approval by European Medicines Agency (EMA) of a treatment she developed to cure a deadly childhood immune disorder. If approved by the EMA, which is Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the treatment would be the first gene stem cell therapy to be granted approval by a major medical regulatory agency.

The therapy cures a disease called severe combined immune deficiency (SCID), sometimes called the “bubble boy disease,” by inserting a gene into blood stem cells and transplanting the stem cells into the patient’s body. The treatment is still being evaluated by the FDA.

My greatest satisfaction is that kids who were once incurable now have options

If approved, the treatment will no longer be considered an experimental therapy in Europe, and “people will be able to get this treatment as they would any other, and will be able to get their insurance company to pay for it,” Roncarolo told me. The final regulatory review marks the beginning of a new era in which genetically modified stem cells might be used to treat or cure a wide variety of human diseases, she also noted.

Roncarolo developed the treatment while she was scientific director at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy. There, she treated kids who were born with an inability to make the enzyme adenosine deaminase (ADA), which leaves them unable to make certain immune cells that protect them from infection. For that reason, children with ADA-SCID are forced to spend their lives in a sterile environment that protects them from infections that most people would easily fight off but are deadly for them.

Roncarolo and her team inserted the gene for ADA into blood stem cells which were transplanted into 18 children with the disease. Once the modified blood stem cells could produce the enzyme, they were able to form the necessary immune cells and the children were able to leave their sterile environment. “Those children have been effectively cured,” Roncarolo said.

Other gene therapies have been developed before, but those therapies modified more mature cells that cannot reproduce themselves. Only stem cells can both make more copies of themselves and also produce more specialized cells. If gene therapy is used to modify cells that are not stem cells, the treatment will only last as long as the cells last. Eventually, mature cells age and die, and the disorder returns.

Last year, Roncarolo was recruited to Stanford to continue her work while serving as co-director of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. She is busy researching cures for other congenital immune disorders and developing methods that could lead to stem cell treatments for a wide variety of other diseases.

“My greatest satisfaction is that kids who were once incurable now have options,” Roncarolo said.

Previously: Countdown to Childx: Stanford expert highlights future of stem cell and gene therapies

Bioengineering, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells

New way to watch what stem cells transplanted into the brain do once they get there

New way to watch what stem cells transplanted into the brain do once they get there

binocularsStem cell replacement therapy is a promising but problem-plagued medical intervention.

In a recent news release detailing a possible way forward, I wrote:

Many brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, are characterized by defective nerve cells in specific brain regions. This makes disorders such as Parkinson’s excellent candidates for stem cell therapies, in which the defective nerve cells are replaced. But the experiments in which such procedures have been attempted have met with mixed results, and those conducting the experiments are hard put to explain them.

That’s because there’s been no good way to evaluate what those transplanted stems cells are doing once you’ve put them inside a living individual. I mean, you’re not gonna break into someone’s brain every couple of days to take a peek, right? Instead, you have to look for behavioral changes. Is the patient or experimental animal walking better (if you’re trying to treat Parkinson’s), or (if it’s Alzheimer’s) remembering better ? Then, even when you see those changes, you still don’t know whether new nerve cells derived from the newly transplanted cells integrated into the proper brain circuits and are now functioning correctly there, or whether the originally transplanted cells are just sitting around secreting some kind of feel-good factor to pep up ailing cells in the vicinity, juicing their  performance. Or maybe it was a placebo effect.

It’s hard to improve on a procedure when you don’t really know what went wrong – or even what went right – on the last attempt. Optimizing the regimen becomes a matter of guesswork and luck.

But in a new study in NeuroImage, neuroscientist/bioengineer Jin Hyung Lee, PhD, and her colleagues came up with a way to peer deep into the living brain and view the results of a stem-cell transplant procedure. They combined an established brain-imaging technique with a newer but increasingly widespread one, called optogenetics, that lets researchers stimulate specific cells.

The first step in optogenetics is to genetically modify the cells you want to stimulate, so that their surfaces become coated by a photosensitive protein that generates electric current in response to laser light. Lee’s team performed this operation on the stem cells before transplanting them into rats’ brains. This way, they could selectively stimulate nerve cells derived from those stem cells and,  using the brain-imaging technique, see if doing so triggered nerve-cell activity at the site of the transplant as well as other places in the brain with which the new cells had established connections.

In these experiments, the stem-cell-derived nerve cells survived, matured into nerve cells, integrated into targeted brain circuits and, most important, fired on cue and ignited activity in downstream nerve circuits. But had all that not happened, at least the researchers would have been able to pinpoint the weak link in the chain.

In principle, the new approach should be possible to use for all kinds of stem-cell therapies, and in humans as well as animals. As Lee told me when I interviewed her for my release on her new study, “If we can watch the new cells’ behaviors for weeks and months after we’ve transplanted them, we can learn – much more quickly and in a guided way rather than a trial-and-error fashion – what kind of cells to put in, exactly where to put them, and how.”

If this light-driven stem-cell-monitoring technique or some others I’ve reported on hold up, brave explorers may no longer have to poke around in the dark.

Previously: Alchemy: From liposuction fluid to new liver cells, Iron-supplement-slurping stem cells can be transplanted, then tracked to make sure they’re making new knees, You’ve got a lot of nerve! Industrial-scale procedure for generating plenty of personalized nerve cells and Nano-hitchhikers ride stem cells into heart, let researchers watch in real time and weeks later
Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

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