Can you describe your work and its potential impact on patient care?
We modeled a form of heart-muscle disease in a dish. To do this, we converted skin cells from patients with a genetic heart muscle disease into stem cells, which we then instructed to turned into cardiomyocytes (heart-muscle cells) that have the genetic defect. We then worked closely with bioengineers to fashion the cells into contracting tissues, a “heart-on-a-chip.”
How was the idea that sparked this innovation born?
This innovation combined the fantastic, ground-breaking advances from many other scientists. It is always best to stand on the shoulders of giants. …
Since 2009, Boston Children’s Hospital has committed $6.2 million to support 58 hospital innovations ranging from therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and vaccines to regenerative medicine and healthcare IT projects. What a difference six years makes.
The Technology Development Fund (TDF) was proposed to Boston Children’s senior leadership in 2008 after months of research. As a catalyst fund, the TDF is designed to transform seed-stage academic technologies at the hospital into independently validated, later-stage, high-impact opportunities sought by licensees and investors. In addition to funds, investigators get access to mentors, product development experts and technical support through a network of contract research organizations and development partners. TDF also provides assistance with strategic planning, intellectual property protection, regulatory requirements and business models.
Seeking some “metrics of success” beyond licensing numbers and royalties (which can come a decade or so after a license), I asked recipients of past TDF awards to report back any successes that owed at least in part to data generated with TDF funds. While we expected some of the results, we would have never anticipated such a large impact. …
If you’ve lost your way on the Boston subway, you need only consult a map to find the best route to your destination. Now stem cell engineers have a similar map to guide the making of cells and tissues for disease modeling, drug testing and regenerative medicine. It’s a computer algorithm known as CellNet.
As in this map on the cover of Cell, a cell has many possible destinations or “fates,” and can arrive at them through three main stem cell engineering methods:
• reprogramming (dialing a specialized cell, such as a skin cell, back to a stem-like state with full tissue-making potential)
• differentiation (pushing a stem cell to become a particular cell type, such as a blood cell)
• direct conversion (changing one kind of specialized cell to another kind)
Freely available on the Internet, CellNet provides clues to which methods of cellular engineering are most effective—and acts as a much-needed quality control tool. …
At TEDx Longwood this spring, Leonard Zon, MD, founder and director of the Stem Cell Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, took the stage. In his enthusiastic yet humble style, he took the audience on a journey that included time-lapse video of zebrafish embryos developing, a riff by Jay Leno and a comparison of stem cell “engraftment” to a college kid coming home after finals: “You sleep for three days, and on day 4, you wake up and you’re in your own bed.” Three takeaways:
1) Stem cells made from our own skin cells can help find new therapeutics. With the right handling, they themselves can be therapeutics, producing healthy muscle, insulin-secreting cells, pretty much anything we need. (So far, this has just been done in mice.)
2) Zebrafish, especially when they’re see-through, can teach us how stem cells work and can be used for mass screening of potential drugs. The Zon Lab boasts 300,000 of these aquarium fish, and can mount robust “clinical trials” with 100 fish per group.
Severe burns, chemical injury and certain diseases can cause blindness by clouding the eyes’ corneas and killing off a precious population of stem cells that help maintain them. In the past, doctors have tried to regrow corneal tissue by transplanting cells from limbal tissue—found at the border between the cornea and the white of the eye. But they didn’t know whether the tissue contained enough of the active ingredient: limbal stem cells.
How cancer research led to a regenerative treatment for blindness.
Results have therefore been mixed. “Limbal stem cells are very rare, and successful transplants are dependent on these rare cells,” says Bruce Ksander, PhD, of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute. “If you have a limbal stem cell deficiency and receive a transplant that does not contain stem cells, the cornea will become opaque again.”
Limbal stem cells have been sought for over a decade. That’s where a “tracer” molecule called ABCB5—first studied in the context of cancer—comes in. …
Stem cell scientists had what first appeared to be an easy win for regenerative medicine when they discovered mesenchymal stem cells several decades ago. These cells, found in the bone marrow, can give rise to bone, fat and muscle tissue, and have been used in hundreds of clinical trials for tissue repair.
Uses range from tissue protection in heart attack and stroke to immune modification in multiple sclerosis and diabetes. Unfortunately, the results of these trials have been underwhelming. One challenge is that these stem cells don’t stick around in the body long enough to benefit the patient. …
The liver has been a model of tissue regeneration for decades, and it’s well known that a person’s liver cells can duplicate in response to injury. Even if three-quarters of the liver is surgically removed, duplication alone can return the organ to its normal functioning mass. It’s why people are able to donate part of their liver to someone in need—like this mother to her son who was born with biliary atresia.
But what about people with more chronic liver damage? Researchers led by Fernando Camargo, PhD, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital’s Stem Cell Program, have new evidence in mice that it may be possible to repair such liver disease by forcing mature liver cells to turn back the clock and revert to a stem cell-like state, able to generate functional liver progenitor cells to replace damaged tissue. …
It 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. …
Think, for a moment, of a cell as a computer, with its genome as its software, working to give cells particular functions. One set of genetic programs turns a cell into a heart cell, another set creates a neuron, still another a lymphocyte and so on.
The job of controlling which programs get booted up, and when, falls in part to transcription factors—genes that act like molecular switches to turn other genes on and off.
“There are about 50,000 HSC transplants every year,” Rossi explains, noting that the success of a transplant is highly dependent on the number of cells a patient receives from her donor. “But HSCs only comprise about one in every 20,000 cells in the bone marrow.
“If we could generate autologous HSCs from a patient’s other cells,” he continues, “it could be transformative for transplant medicine and for our ability to model diseases of blood development.”
As they reported April 24 in Cell, Rossi and his collaborators have taken a significant step toward that goal: Using a cocktail of eight transcription factors, they reprogrammed mature mouse blood cells into what they have dubbed induced HSCs (iHSCs). …
As a hematologist, I see all too many children battling blood disorders that are essentially untreatable. Babies with immune deficiencies living life in a virtual bubble, hospitalized again and again for infections their bodies can’t fight. Children disabled by strokes caused by sickle cell disease, or suffering through sickle cell crises that drug treatments can’t completely prevent. Children whose only recourse is to risk a bone marrow transplant—if a suitably matched donor can even be found.
Over the past 20 years, my lab and that of George Daley, MD, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital have worked hard to give these children a one-time, potentially curative option—a treatment that begins with patients’ own cells and doesn’t require finding a match. …