The Mammalian Stress Response and Human Embryonic Stem Cell Survival

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
ICOC Funds Committed: 
Disease Focus: 
Solid Tumor
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
Public Abstract: 
Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are pluripotent stem cells that have the dual ability to self renew and to differentiate into multiple cell types in the body. Growth and expansion of pluripotent hESCs require a balance between survival, cell death, self-renewal and differentiation signals. Despite the identification of some of the growth factors believed to be involved in hESCs self-renewal and proliferation, hESCs are extremely difficult to propagate and their survival in continuous culture in vitro remains a major challenge. Without improvement in this critical research area, the growth and expansion of undifferentiated human stem cells, which have the highest potency in generating the differentiated cell types, will remain a major obstacle to attaining the goal of human stem cell transplantation. This is because for any human cell therapy to succeed, it is necessary to prepare sufficient amount of undifferentiated human cell stem cells to test out the experimental conditions as well as subsequent transplantation into patients. This critical step is currently the bottleneck for advancing stem cell biology and therapy. This proposal is aimed at discovering the cellular basis on why undifferentiated hESCs, in contrast to mouse embryonic stem cells and human embryonic carcinoma cells, grow so slowly and are so difficult to sustain. We will study and compare a major cellular defense system of human stem cells. Our study will utilize several undifferentiated hESCs, as well as hESCs that have been induced to differentiate into neural stem cells, the latter are critical for future transplantation studies for the cure of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In this application, we also propose a simple procedure whereby upon modification of the growth medium the hESCs may be able to grow more rapidly with a higher survival rate. If successful, our discovery can be applied to the cure of many types of diseases amendable by stem cell therapy. The CIRM seed grant is most appropriate for this study as it is testing a novel concept, has direct translational potential into therapy, and will include human stem cell lines currently not approved by the NIH.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
This project has a broad benefit to Californians since we propose to evaluate basic biological functions of the human embryonic stem cells in culture. We hope to gain a better understanding of how the cells are responding to culture conditions and use this knowledge to improve culture conditions. Understanding the mechanisms governing human embryonic stem cell growth and stable propagation is vital to the success of this field. Our goal is to provide better and more reliable culture and scale-up preparations of human embryonic stem cells and their differentiated progeny. Unless we overcome the current limitations with current culture and scale-up protocols, the therapeutic potential of human embryonic stem cells will not be realized. This is an absolute prerequisite for achieving the goal of utilizing human stem cells for therapy of human diseases. Cost savings to California’s tax payers will be realized when human stem therapy can be achieved through stable growth and expansion of human embryonic stem cells.
Progress Report: 
  • Recent studies have shown that mutations in the DNA of adult stem cells can lead to the formation of cancerous rather than normal tissues. However, with the exception of blood, adult stem cells are rare and not readily accessible for isolation or study. Thus, very little is yet known about how these stem cells are hijacked to cause cancer.
  • Our laboratory is studying how mutations in stem cells give rise to Ewing sarcoma. Ewing sarcoma family tumors (ESFT) are highly aggressive tumors that primarily affect children and young adults. ESFT have a specific mutation in their DNA that leads to the creation of a cancer-causing gene called EWS-FLI1. It is our hypothesis that expression of EWS-FLI1 in adult stem cells generates ESFT. In particular, we are interested in a very rare population of adult stem cells called neural crest stem cells (NCSC) and these cells have been the focus of our CIRM-funded grant.
  • We initially proposed that human embryonic stem cells (hESC) could be used to generate NCSC and that these cells would be invaluable tools with which to study the origin of ESFT. In the first year of the grant we successfully achieved this goal and the work has been published. In the second year of the grant we have studied the consequences of activating the EWS-FLI1 on these cells. Importantly, our work shows that NCSC that express EWS-FLI1 do not differentiate normally. Instead they acquire properties of cancer stem cells. Thus, we propose that ESFT arise from NCSC that acquire a genetic mutation that prevents them from developing normally. These abnormal stem cells then go on to develop into full blown tumors.
  • By creating novel stem cell models to study the origin of ESFT we are gaining new insights into how these tumors arise in children. These insights will ultimately aid in the development of more effective therapies that can be designed to destroy abnormal cancer-causing stem cells whilst sparing normal stem cells.

© 2013 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine