Stories about: iPS cells

‘Heart on a chip’ suggests a surprising treatment for a rare genetic disease

heart chip BarthIt was the variability that intrigued pediatric cardiologist William Pu, MD, about his patient with heart failure. The boy suffered from a rare genetic mitochondrial disorder called Barth syndrome. While he ultimately needed a heart transplant, his heart function seemed to vary day-to-day, consistent with reports in the medical literature.

“Often patients present in infancy with severe heart failure, then in childhood it gets much better, and in the teen years, much worse,” says Pu, of the Cardiology Research Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “This reversibility suggests that this is a disease we should really be able to fix.”

Though it needs much more testing, a potential fix may now be in sight for Barth syndrome, which has no specific treatment and also causes skeletal muscle weakness and low white-blood-cell counts. It’s taken the work of multiple labs collaborating across institutional lines.

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Zebrafish plus iPS cells make a drug discovery platform with muscle

Cell cover about using zebrafish and iPS cells to find muscle-building drugs.
In a one-two-three punch, a rapid screen in zebrafish can quickly identify a short list of drug candidates to test in mice and in patient-derived cells.

Scientists have had little success in growing skeletal muscle for patients with muscular dystrophy and other disorders that degrade and weaken muscle. Undertaking experiments in zebrafish, mouse and human cells, researchers have identified a way to do that, creating cells that Leonard Zon, MD, hopes to see tested in patients in the next several years.

But what really excites Zon, director of the Stem Cell research program at Boston Children’s Hospital, is the power of the chemical screening platform he and his colleagues used. Described last week in the journal Cell, it found a cocktail of three compounds that induced human muscle cells to grow—in just a matter of weeks. Zon believes it could fast-track drug discovery for multiple disorders.

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Rebooting Fanconi anemia cells: You have to fix the broken code first

David Williams wants to turn cells from Fanconi anemia (FA) patients into stem-like iPS cells. To do that, though, he needs to get the patients' cells to reboot properly. (_rockinfree/Flickr)

About a decade ago, David Williams, MD, set out to solve a problem. The chief of Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center’s Hematology/Oncology division wanted to treat Fanconi anemia (FA)—a rare, inherited bone marrow failure disease—using gene therapy. In the process, he’d be able to replace patients’ faulty bone marrow cells with ones corrected for the genetic defect that causes FA.

There was one big problem though. “The main bar to attempting gene therapy in FA is that you need to be able to collect a certain number of blood stem cells from a patient in order to be able to give enough corrected cells back,” he says. “In our early clinical trials, we were unable to provide enough corrected stem cells to reverse the bone marrow failure we see in these patients.”

One way around the supply issue would be to create the necessary blood stem cells from FA patients’ own cells by first reprogramming skin cells into what are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Using one of several methods, scientist can reboot mature skin cells into an immature, stem cell-like state—essentially turning the cells’ biological clocks back to a time when they could grow into anything the body might need.

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Epigenetic enzymes thicken the iPS cell reprogramming plot

Manipulating the enzymes that turn genes on and off could help make the process of reprogramming cells into iPS cells a lot more efficient and safer.

There are several ways to reprogram skin cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – cells that behave like embryonic stem cells, and which could help better understand the genetic basis of and develop new treatments for different diseases.

The major methods scientists use now include using viruses to deliver reprogramming genes or using RNAs to produce the necessary proteins without the genes. Different methods have different advantages and disadvantages, and some are more efficient than others.

What’s common across all of the methods is that they rely on four proteins to turn back the cellular clock – c-Myc, Klf4, Oct4, and Sox2. Less understood is whether enzymes that modify chromatin (the DNA-plus-protein package that constitutes our genome) play any role in the reprogramming process. These enzymes manage and control the cell’s epigenetic code – the layer of control that helps cells fine-tune gene expression by adding and removing small chemical tags to genes and proteins.

“During iPS reprogramming, a cell’s epigenetic code gets completely rewritten,” says George Q. Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children’s Hospital Boston. “But how the cell’s epigenetic enzymes influence the reprogramming process has been a mystery.”

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