The 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.