Year 1Our program is focused on improving methods that can be used to purify stem cells so that they can be used safely and effectively for therapy. A significant limitation in translating laboratory discoveries into clinical practice remains our inability to separate specific stem cells that generate one type of desired tissue from a mixture of ‘pluripotent’ stem cells, which generate various types of tissue. An ideal transplant would then consist of only tissue-specific stem cells that retain a robust regenerative potential. Pluripotent cells, on the other hand, pose the risk, when transplanted, of generating normal tissue in the wrong location, abnormal tissue, or cancer. Thus, we have concentrated our efforts to devise strategies to either make pluripotent cells develop into desired tissue-specific stem cells or to separate these desired cells from a mixture of many types of cells.
Our approach to separating tissue-specific stem cells from mixed cultures is based on the theory that every type of cell has a very specific set of molecules on its surface that can act as a signature. Once this signature is known, antibodies (molecules that specifically bind to these surface markers) can be used to tag all the cells of a desired type and remove them from a mixed population. To improve stem cell therapy, our aim is to identify the signature markers on: (1) the stem cells that are pluripotent or especially likely to generate tumors; and (2) the tissue-specific stem cells. By then developing antibodies to the pluripotent or tumor-causing cells, we can exclude them from a group of cells to be transplanted. By developing antibodies to the tissue-specific stem cells, we can remove them from a mixture to select them for transplantation. For the second approach, we are particularly interested in targeting stem cells that develop into heart (cardiac) tissue and cells that develop into mature blood cells. As we develop ways to isolate the desired cells, we test them by transplanting them into animals and observing how they grow.
Thus, the first goal of our program is to develop tools to isolate pluripotent stem cells, especially those that can generate tumors in transplant recipients. To this end, we tested an antibody aimed at a pluripotent cell marker (stage-specific embryonic antigen-5 [SSEA-5]) that we previously identified. We transplanted into animals a population of stem cells that either had the SSEA-5-expressing cells removed or did not have them removed. The animals that received the transplants lacking the SSEA-5-expressing cells developed smaller and fewer teratomas (tumors consisting of an abnormal mixture of many tissues). Approaching the problem from another angle, we analyzed teratomas in animals that had received stem cell transplants. We found SSEA-5 on a small group of cells we believe to be responsible for generating the entire tumor.
The second goal of the program is to develop methods to selectively culture cardiac stem cells or isolate them from mixed cultures. Thus, in the last year we tested procedures for culturing pluripotent stem cells under conditions that cause them to develop into cardiac stem cells. We also tested a combination of four markers that we hypothesized would tag cardiac stem cells for separation. When these cells were grown under the proper conditions, they began to ‘beat’ and had electrical activity similar to that seen in normal heart cells. When we transplanted the cells with the four markers into mice with normal or damaged hearts, they seemed to develop into mature heart cells. However, these (human) cells did not integrate with the native (mouse) heart cells, perhaps because of the species difference. So we varied the approach and transplanted the human heart stem cells into human heart tissue that had been previously implanted in mice. In this case, we found some evidence that the transplanted cells differentiated into mature heart cells and integrated with the surrounding human cells.
The third goal of our project is to culture stem cells that give rise only to blood cells and test them for transplantation. In the past year, we developed a new procedure for treating cultures of pluripotent stem cells so that they differentiate into specific stem cells that generate blood cells and blood vessels. We are now working to refine our understanding and methods so that we end up with a culture of differentiated stem cells that generates only blood cells and not vessels.
In summary, we have discovered markers and tested combinations of antibodies for these markers that may select unwanted cells for removal or wanted cells for inclusion in stem cell transplants. We have also begun to develop techniques for taking a group of stem cells that can generate many tissue types, and growing them under conditions that cause them to develop into tissue-specific stem cells that can be used safely for transplantation.
Year 2Our program is focused on improving methods to purify blood-forming and heart-forming stem cells so that they can be used safely and effectively for therapy. Current methods to identify and isolate blood-forming stem cells from bone marrow and blood are efficient. In addition, we found that if blood-forming stem cells are transplanted, they create in the recipient an immune system that will tolerate (i.e., not reject) organs, tissues, or other types of tissue stem cells (e.g. skin, brain, or heart) from the same donor. Many living or recently deceased donors often cannot contribute these stem cells, so we need, in the future, a single biological source of each of the different types of stem cells (e.g., blood and heart) to change the entire field of regenerative medicine. The ultimate reason to fund embryonic stem cell and other pluripotent stem cell research is to create safe banks of predefined pluripotent cells. Protocols to differentiate these cells to the appropriate blood-forming stem cells could then be used to induce tolerance of other tissue stem cells from the same embryonic stem cell line. However, existing protocols to differentiation stem cells often lead to pluripotent cells (cells that generate multiple types of tissue), which pose a risk of generating normal tissue in the wrong location, abnormal tissue, or cancers called teratomas. To address these problems, we have concentrated our efforts to devise strategies to (a) make pluripotent cells develop into desired tissue-specific stem cells, and (b) to separate these desired cells from all other cells, including teratoma-causing cells. In the first funding period of this grant, we succeeded in raising antibodies that identify and eliminate teratoma-causing cells.
In the past year, we identified surface markers of cells that can only give rise to heart tissue. First we studied the genes that were activated in these cells, further confirming that they would likely give rise to heart tissue. Using antibodies against these surface markers, we purified heart stem cells to a higher concentration than has been achieved by other purification methods. We showed that these heart stem cells can be transplanted such that they integrate into the human heart, but not mouse heart, and participate in strong and correctly timed beating.
In the embryo, a group of early stem cells in the developing heart give rise to (a) heart cells; (b) cells lining the inner walls of blood vessels; and (c) muscle cells surrounding blood vessels. We identified cell surface markers that could be used to separate each of these subsets from each other and from their common stem cell parents. Finally, we determined that a specific chemical in the body, fibroblast growth factor, increased the growth of a group of pluripotent stem cells that give rise to more specific stem cells that produce either blood cells or the lining of blood vessels. This chemical also prevented blood-forming stem cells from developing into specific blood cells.
In the very early embryo, pluripotent cells separate into three distinct categories called ‘germ layers’: the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm. Each of these germ layers later gives rise to certain organs. Our studies of the precursors of mesoderm (the layer that generates the heart, blood vessels, blood, etc.) led us by exclusion to develop techniques to direct ES cell differentiation towards endoderm (the layer that gives rise to liver, pancreas, intestinal lining, etc.). A graduate student before performed most of this work before he joined in our effort to find ways to make functional blood forming stem cells from ES cells. He had identified a group of proteins that we could use to sequentially direct embryonic stem cells to develop almost exclusively into endoderm, then subsets of digestive tract cells, and finally liver stem cells. These liver stem cells derived from embryonic stem cells integrated into mouse livers and showed signs of normal liver tissue function (e.g., secretion of albumin, a major protein in the blood). Using the guidelines of the protocols that generated these liver stem cells, we have now turned our attention back to our goal of generating from mesoderm the predecessors of blood-forming stem cells, and, ultimately, blood-forming stem cells.
In summary, we have continued to discover signals that cause pluripotent stem cells (which can generate many types of tissue) to become tissue-specific stem cells that exclusively develop into only heart, blood cells, blood vessel lining cells, cells that line certain sections of the digestive tract, or liver cells. This work has also involved determining the distinguishing molecules on the surface of various cells that allow them to be isolated and nearly purified. These results bring us closer to being able to purify a desired type of stem cell to be transplanted safely to generate only a single type of tissue.
Year 3The main focus of our program is to improve methods to generate pure populations of tissue-specific stem cells that form only heart tissue or blood. Such tissue-specific stem cells are necessary for developing safe and effective therapies. If injected into patients with heart damage, heart-forming stem cells might be used to regenerate healthy heart tissue. Blood-forming stem cells are capable of regenerating the blood-forming system after cancer therapy and replacing a defective blood forming-system. We showed that blood-forming stem cells from a given donor induce in the recipient permanent transplant tolerance of all organs, tissues, or other tissue stem cells from the same donor. Therefore, having a single biological source of each of the different types of stem cells (e.g., blood and heart) would revolutionize regenerative medicine.
Our projects involve generating tissue-specific stem cells from pluripotent stem cells (PSCs), the latter of which are stem cells that can form all tissues of the body. PSCs (which include embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells) can turn into all types of more specialized cells in a process known as “differentiation.” Because PSCs can be grown to very large numbers, differentiating PSCs into tissue-specific stem cells could lead to banks of defined tissue stem cells for transplantation into patients—the ultimate reason to conduct PSC research.
However, current methods to differentiate PSCs often generate mixtures of various cell types that are unsafe for injection into patients. Therefore, generating a pure population of a desired cell type from PSC is pivotal for regenerative medicine—purity is a key concern for cell therapy as it is with medications.
We have invented technologies to purify desired types of cells from complex cell populations, allowing us to precisely isolate a pure population of tissue-specific stem cells from differentiating PSCs for cell therapy. For instance, in our work on heart-forming cells, we developed labels for cells that progressively give rise to heart cells. We used these labeled cells to clarify the natural, stepwise, differentiation process that leads from PSCs to heart-forming stem cells, and finally to different cells within the heart. Exploiting these technologies to isolate desired cell types, we have completed the first step of turning human PSCs into heart-forming stem cells. In the laboratory, when we transplanted these heart-forming stem cells into a human heart, they integrated with the surrounding tissue and participated in correctly timed beating. In the future we hope to deliver heart-forming stem cells into the damaged heart to regenerate healthy tissue.
We have also attempted to turn PSCs into blood-forming stem cells by understanding the complex process of blood formation in the early embryo. As mentioned above, if blood-forming stem cells are transplanted into patients, they create in the recipient an immune system that will tolerate (i.e., not reject) other tissues and types of tissue stem cells (e.g., for skin or heart) from the same donor. Thus, turning PSCs into blood-forming stem cells will provide the basis for all regenerative medicine, whereby the blood-forming stem cells and the needed other tissue stem cells can be generated from the same pluripotent cell line and be transplanted together.
In parallel studies to those above, we have turned PSCs into liver-forming stem cells. In the embryo, the liver emerges from a cell type known as endoderm, whereas the blood and heart emerge from a different cell type known as mesoderm. We learned that PSCs could only be steered to form endoderm (and subsequently, liver) by diverting them away from the path that leads to mesoderm. Through this approach, we could turn human PSCs into endoderm cells (at >99% purity) and then into liver-forming stem cells that, when injected into the mouse liver, gave rise to human liver cells. This could be of therapeutic importance for human patients with liver damage.
Finally, we have developed methods to deplete PSCs from mixtures of cells differentiated from PSCs, because residual PSCs in these mixtures can form tumors (known as teratomas). These methods should increase the safety of PSC-derived tissue stem cell therapy.
In summary, we have developed methods to turn PSCs to tissue-specific stem cells that exclusively develop into only heart, blood cells, or liver cells. This work has involved determining the distinguishing molecules on the surface of various cells that allow them to be isolated and nearly purified. These results bring us closer to being able to purify a desired type of stem cell to be transplanted safely to generate only a single type of tissue.