Year 1

Over the past year, we have analyzed five induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines engineered from different individuals with a genetic stem cell disease. Dyskeratosis congenita is a rare disease affecting stem cells in multiple tissues. Patients with dyskeratosis congenita develop life-threatening bone marrow failure and pulmonary fibrosis, and are highly prone to cancers. In addition, they develop defects in skin, nails and many other organs. Dyskeratosis congenita is caused by mutations in an enzyme – telomerase – that is particularly important in stem cells. Telomerase elongates telomeres, caps that protect chromosome ends. If telomerase is defective, telomeres shorten and loss of the protective cap at telomeres can cause serious problems in stem cells. It has been very difficult to study this disease because isolating stem cells from dyskeratosis congenita patients is challenging. To overcome this problem, we engineered iPS cells from five patients. This is a way to change skin cells into cells that closely resemble embryonic stem cells – stem cells that can give rise to all tissues within the body. We studied these iPS cells from dyskeratosis congenita patients and found that the type of effects on telomerase were very specific and depended on the specific gene that is mutated in the patient. For example, mutations in TERT, the catalytic protein in the telomerase complex, resulted in a 50% reduction in telomerase activity in the patient’s iPS cells. In contrast, mutations in the protein dyskerin, seen in the X-linked form of the disease, reduced telomerase activity by a much greater amount – 90% compared to controls. Mutations in another telomerase protein, TCAB1, left telomerase activity unaffected, but made the enzyme mislocalize within the nucleus. We studied how telomeres elongated with reprogramming of skin cells to iPSCs for each patient. Normal cells from healthy people show significant elongation of telomeres during the making of iPSCs, because telomerase is reactivated during this process. For TERT-mutant patients, elongation still happened, but elongation was significantly blunted. For dyskerin-mutant iPS cells and TCAB1-mutant iPS cells, elongation was completely blocked by the mutations and instead, telomeres shortened during this process and with passage in culture. Importantly, the much more severe telomere defect in dyskerin-mutant and TCAB1-mutant cells corresponds closely with the severity of the disease in the patients themselves. Our data show that iPS cells are a very accurate system for studying dyskeratosis congenita and revealed for the first time that the severity of the disease correlates with the severity of the telomerase defect in stem cells. These findings create new opportunities to study stem cell diseases in cell culture and to develop therapies that could specifically reverse the disease defect.