Our 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.