Creative Minds: A Transcriptional “Periodic Table” of Human Neurons

neuronal cell

Caption: Mouse fibroblasts converted into induced neuronal cells, showing neuronal appendages (red), nuclei (blue) and the neural protein tau (yellow).
Credit: Kristin Baldwin, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA

Writers have The Elements of Style, chemists have the periodic table, and biomedical researchers could soon have a comprehensive reference on how to make neurons in a dish. Kristin Baldwin of the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award to begin drafting an online resource that will provide other researchers the information they need to reprogram mature human skin cells reproducibly into a variety of neurons that closely resemble those found in the brain and nervous system.

These lab-grown neurons could be used to improve our understanding of basic human biology and to develop better models for studying Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and a wide range of other neurological conditions. Such questions have been extremely difficult to explore in mice and other animal models because they have shorter lifespans and different brain structures than humans.

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Regenerative Medicine: Making Blood Stem Cells in the Lab

Endothelial cells becoming hematopoietic stem cells

Caption: Arrow in first panel points to an endothelial cell induced to become hematopoietic stem cell (HSC). Second and third panels show the expansion of HSCs over time.
Credit: Raphael Lis, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY

Bone marrow transplants offer a way to cure leukemia, sickle cell disease, and a variety of other life-threatening blood disorders.There are two major problems, however: One is many patients don’t have a well-matched donor to provide the marrow needed to reconstitute their blood with healthy cells. Another is even with a well-matched donor, rejection or graft versus host disease can occur, and lifelong immunosuppression may be needed.

A much more powerful option would be to develop a means for every patient to serve as their own bone marrow donor. To address this challenge, researchers have been trying to develop reliable, lab-based methods for making the vital, blood-producing component of bone marrow: hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs).

Two new studies by NIH-funded research teams bring us closer to achieving this feat. In the first study, researchers developed a biochemical “recipe” to produce HSC-like cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which were derived from mature skin cells. In the second, researchers employed another approach to convert mature mouse endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels, directly into self-renewing HSCs. When these HSCs were transplanted into mice, they fully reconstituted the animals’ blood systems with healthy red and white blood cells.

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Regenerative Medicine: The Promise and Peril

Retinal pigment epithelial cells

Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelial cells growing on a nanofiber scaffold (blue).
Credit: Sheldon Miller, Arvydas Maminishkis, Robert Fariss, and Kapil Bharti, National Eye Institute/NIH

Stem cells derived from a person’s own body have the potential to replace tissue damaged by a wide array of diseases. Now, two reports published in the New England Journal of Medicine highlight the promise—and the peril—of this rapidly advancing area of regenerative medicine. Both groups took aim at the same disorder: age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common, progressive form of vision loss. Unfortunately for several patients, the results couldn’t have been more different.

In the first case, researchers in Japan took cells from the skin of a female volunteer with AMD and used them to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in the lab. Those iPSCs were coaxed into differentiating into cells that closely resemble those found near the macula, a tiny area in the center of the eye’s retina that is damaged in AMD. The lab-grown tissue, made of retinal pigment epithelial cells, was then transplanted into one of the woman’s eyes. While there was hope that there might be actual visual improvement, the main goal of this first in human clinical research project was to assess safety. The patient’s vision remained stable in the treated eye, no adverse events occurred, and the transplanted cells remained viable for more than a year.

Exciting stuff, but, as the second report shows, it is imperative that all human tests of regenerative approaches be designed and carried out with the utmost care and scientific rigor. In that instance, three elderly women with AMD each paid $5,000 to a Florida clinic to be injected in both eyes with a slurry of cells, including stem cells isolated from their own abdominal fat. The sad result? All of the women suffered severe and irreversible vision loss that left them legally or, in one case, completely blind.

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Progress Toward Stem Cell Treatment for Diabetes

patient-derived pancreatic beta cells

Caption: Insulin-containing pancreatic beta cells (green) derived from human stem cells. The red cells are producing another metabolic hormone, glucagon, that regulates blood glucose levels. Blue indicates cell nuclei.
Credit: The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA

In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system kills off insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas needed to control the amount of glucose in their bloodstream. As a result, they must monitor their blood glucose often and take replacement doses of insulin to keep it under control. Transplantation of donated pancreatic islets—tissue that contains beta cells—holds some promise as a therapy or even a cure for type 1 diabetes. However, such donor islets are in notoriously short supply [1]. Recent advances in stem cell research have raised hopes of one day generating an essentially unlimited supply of replacement beta cells perfectly matched to the patient to avoid transplant rejection.

A couple of years ago, researchers took a major step toward this goal by coaxing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are made from mature human cells, to differentiate into cells that closely resembled beta cells. But a few things were troublesome. The process was long and difficult, and the iPSC-derived cells were not quite as good at sensing glucose and secreting insulin as cells in a healthy person. They also looked and, in some ways, acted like beta cells, but were unable to mature fully in the lab. Now, an NIH-funded team has succeeded in finding an additional switch that enables iPSC-derived beta cells to mature and produce insulin in a dish—a significant step toward moving this work closer to the clinical applications that many diabetics have wanted.

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iMPCs: Cell Reprogrammers Take Aim at Liver Disease

Cross-section of mouse liver

Caption: Cross-section of mouse liver containing iMPC-derived human liver cells (red), some of which are proliferating (green). All cell nuclei appear blue.
Credit: Milad Rezvani, Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research, University of California, San Francisco

Over the past few years, researchers have learned how to reprogram skin or blood cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the ability to differentiate into heart, nerve, muscle, and many other kinds of cells. But it’s proven a lot more tricky to coax iPSCs (as well as human embryonic stem cells) to differentiate into mature, fully functional liver cells.

Now, NIH-funded researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Gladstone Institutes appear to have overcome this problem. They have developed a protocol that transforms human skin cells into mature liver cells that not only function normally in a lab dish, but proliferate after they’ve been transplanted into mice that model human liver failure [1]. This ability to proliferate is a hallmark of normal liver cells—and the secret to the liver’s astounding capacity to regenerate after infection or injury.

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