One of the great promises of stem cell research is that it will one day be possible to prepare replacement cells or organs from stem cells such as embryonic stem cells, which can be transplanted to patients to substitute for diseased or defective patient tissues or organs. Unfortunately, the immune system reacts against, and rejects, transplanted tissues that are not perfectly matched with the recipient. A promising approach around this problem is a two step procedure, in which a patient is first transplanted with blood stem cells of a specific type, and later with replacement tissues or cells derived from the same embryonic stem cells as the blood stem cells. If the blood cell transplant is successful, the patient’s blood cells will forever after be composed of a mixture of their own blood cells and the donor blood cells (“chimerism”). It is known that blood cell chimerism induces the recipient to be accept diverse types of grafts of the same source as the blood cells. Thus, the blood cell graft prepares the recipient to accept other types of grafts derived from the same stem cells. Unfortunately, blood stem cell grafts are themselves subject to a specific type of immune rejection, mediated by natural killer (NK) cells. Hence, successful application of the two step procedure requires the development of methods to prevent NK cells from rejecting blood cell grafts.
We have developed evidence that NK cells can be induced to become tolerant of mismatched blood cell grafts. We propose studies to develop a general procedure to induce tolerance of a recipient’s NK cells to mismatched blood cell grafts. Using an experimental model, we will test whether the procedure facilitates transplantation of blood cells derived from embryonic stem cells, the generation of blood cell chimerism, and the subsequent transplantation of other tissues in a two step procedure.
The proposed research is designed to provide novel methods to facilitate therapeutic transplantation of stem cell derived cells and tissues to patient’s suffering from numerous disorders and diseases. Such approaches will ultimately benefit millions of Californians suffering from diabetes, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, etc. Breakthroughs in stem cell research in California will also generate new industries, reducing joblessness and bolstering the California economy.
Our plan is to find ways to facilitate transplants of stem cell-derived cells to genetically different recipients. We propose to inactivate the rejection capability of natural killer cells, a white blood cell type that can reject transplanted cells. To explore this we started with a mouse model. Previously we generated evidence that there are one or more cell types in normal mice can inactivate the rejection capacity of natural killer cells. Our first aim is to identify that cell type to see it can be injected into mice to inactivate the natural killer cells. In the last year we have generated evidence that the relevant cell type is a non-blood cell type. We will now test various non-blood cell types to see which ones have this capability. The hope is that once the cell type has been identified, it could be generated from stem cells and injected into patients to facilitate transplants of other cell types derived from the same stem cells.
Our plan is to find ways to facilitate transplants of stem cell-derived cells to genetically different recipients. We propose to inactivate the rejection capability of natural killer cells, a white blood cell type that can reject transplanted cells. To explore this we started with a mouse model. Previously we generated evidence that there are one or more cell types in normal mice can inactivate the rejection capacity of natural killer cells. Our first aim is to identify that cell type to see it can be injected into mice to inactivate the natural killer cells. In the last year we discovered that the relevant cells include both blood cell types and non blood cell types. We showed however, that tolerance induced by non-blood cell types induces a more stable type of tolerance than that induced by blood cell types. We went on to develop a system in live mice to test subtypes of cells that can induce tolerance. Using this system, we could show that a heterogeneous mixture of blood cell types could induce tolerance. The system is suitable for testing specific blood cell, or non blood cell, types for their capacity to induce tolerance. We will undertake those studies in the coming months. The hope is that once the cell type has been identified, it could be generated from stem cells and injected into patients to facilitate transplants of other cell types derived from the same stem cells.
Stem cell therapy involves transfer of stem cells to patients. Transferring stem cells from a donor to a patient holds particular promise, because the stem cells may be reliably modified to rectify a specific defect and restore a particular function. This approach is limited by the patient’s immune response, which may reject the foreign transplant. Immune suppressive drugs can be used to prevent rejection of the stem cell, but these drugs leave patients sensitive to infections. We aim to find new, less debilitating methods to facilitate transplantation of foreign stem cell derived tissues. One approach is to establish a state of immune tolerance in the patient, by transplanting blood cells to generate blood cell mixing, called chimerism— that the patient tolerates. Once that is successful, stem cells of other tissues will also be tolerated, as long as they are from the same donor as the donor blood cells. Our efforts have focused on enabling patients to accept foreign blood cells—the first step in this approach. Natural killer cells are immune cells that are known to reject foreign blood cells, when the donor cells are mismatched at genes that control tissue rejection. We have shown that natural killer cells can be rapidly converted to a tolerant state when exposed to specific foreign cells from a donor. Subsequently, they will ignore transplants from the same donor. These findings suggested we could develop methods to readily prevent rejection of foreign blood cells by natural killer cells, but we also learned that this tolerance is fragile: when infections occurred, the tolerance could be reversed and the donor cells rejected. If this occurred after stem cell therapy, the donor stem cells would be rejected, abrogating the benefit of stem cell therapy. However, we also learned that this outcome did not occur in all circumstances. We learned that the fragile state of tolerance occurred when natural killer cells were exposed to foreign blood cells, but a distinct or deeper state of tolerance occurred when NK cells were exposed to other types of foreign cells, not of the blood cell lineages. In that case, tolerance was much less fragile and was sustained even when infections occurred. Our research is geared to identifying the key cell types that induce a deeper and less fragile form of tolerance of natural killer cells, in order to improve the effectiveness of therapeutic stem cell therapy.