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Limb Regeneration May Require Less Potent Stem Cells Than Previously Thought

August 15th, 2009

Salamanders have the amazing ability to re-grow a limb after it has been cut off. It is thought that by better understanding this regenerative ability, researchers will be able to apply this knowledge to humans and improve wound healing. Recently it was reported that salamander limb regeneration may occur in a different way than was previously thought; in short, the severed limb may not need pluripotent stem cells to regenerate, as was believed, but only multipotent or unipotent stem cells, stem cells with relatively restricted fates.

In salamanders, when a limb is severed the resultant limb bud undergoes a distinct process to regenerate the lost limb. The epithelial layer quickly spreads across the amputation site, closing the wound within 24 hours (Mescher, 1996). This epithelial layer thickens and becomes what is referred to as the wound epithelium (WE). As the immune system responds to the injury, macrophages and neutrophils arrive to clean up the wound site beneath the WE. The existing injured tissues and cells are broken down as well as the extracellular matrix, which is made up of proteins that surround cells to hold them together and stimulate normal cellular functions. It was thought that at this time in the regenerative process other resident cells below the WE become multipotent mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) (see Figure). These eventually form a mass of MSCs called a blastema (Mescher, 1996; Brockes and Kumar, 2005). The blastema was thought to contain a homogenous group of pluripotent stem cells that had “dedifferentiated” or “redifferentiated,” meaning they had reverted back from their committed fates to function as very potent stem cells in order to recreate the limb. The WE stimulates the cells in the blastema to proliferate, making new cells and extracellular matrix, though more than is required for simple repair; the WE signals the blastema cells to regenerate the entire lost limb (Mescher, 1996; Kragl et al., 2009).

Caption

Limb regeneration in the salamander after limb amputation (time course going from the top down). Shortly after the limb is amputated, the epithelium layer covers the exposed limb bud, forming the wound epithelium (WE). A group of stem cells collects below this layer, forming the blastema (at the tip of the bud). The WE signals the stem cells below it to rebuild the limb, recreating the limb from the point of injury out towards the hand. The final regenerated limb is indistinguishable from the original.

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Cancer Stem Cells: A Possible Path to a Cure

July 5th, 2009

Cancer stem cells (CSCs), as their name implies, are stem cells that have been discovered to reside within cancerous tumors. Tumors are made up of a heterogeneous mixture of cells. Consequently, if the growth comes from a common origin it must be a cell, or cells, capable of becoming many different types of cells. This makes stem cells a very likely suspect as they, by definition, are able to give rise to a variety of cells. CSCs have been broadly defined as cells within a tumor that are able to self-renew, regenerating a population of multipotent CSCs, as well as differentiate into other cells, which can create the heterogeneity seen in tumors (Vermeulen et al., 2008).

Although the theory of cancer stem cells has been around since the 1970s (Hamburger and Salmon, 1977), recently it has gained a spotlight in the scientific community. The first functional identification of CSCs was in 1997 in acute myeloid leukemia (Bonnet and Dick, 1997). Researchers found that although there are many different populations of cells within a tumor, only one population has the ability to generate the tumor. This was determined by separating the populations from each other and engrafting them into an immuno-compromised (NOD/SCID) mouse; the population identified as CSCs was able to recreate the original tumor, including morphology and the specific differentiated cell types observed within the tumor (Vermeulen et al., 2008).

The different populations within a tumor can be separated and identified according to the proteins expressed (or produced) on the surface of a particular cell; cells expressing the same set of proteins are grouped into one population. Because such proteins are commonly used to identify and categorize cells, they are called cell markers. CSCs from the same tumor type usually have the same set of markers expressed, although the markers expressed can vary much more between CSCs from different tissues (Vermeulen et al., 2008). For example, breast cancer CSCs have been found to express a marker called CD44, but are distinct for also not expressing the marker CD24 (making this CSC population be labeled CD44+/CD24) (Al-Hajj et al., 2002). In comparison, pancreatic cancer CSCs express CD44, but also express CD24 (Li et al., 2007). Although there are differences like this in marker expression between CSCs from different tumor types, some markers are present in CSCs from many different types of tumors, such as CD44. CSCs from ovarian tumors (Zhang et al., 2008) and head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (Prince et al., 2006) have also been found to express CD44. Another major marker protein expressed in CSCs across tissue types is CD133; it is expressed by CSCs found in brain (Singh et al., 2003), prostate (Lang et al., 2008), colon (O’Brien et al., 2007), lung (Eramo et al., 2007), and hepatic (Suetsugu et al., 2006) tumors. For a more detailed summary of marker expression of CSCs from the different tumors they have been discovered in, see Table 1.

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Table 1. Cancer Stem Cell Populations Detected in Different Cancerous Tumors (CSC Markers and Percent of the Total Tumor)

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Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells: A New Stem Cell Line with a Long History

June 7th, 2009

Virtually identical to human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) except for their origin of isolation, the recently created induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) (Yu et al., 2007; Takahashi et al., 2007) hold much potential for use in regenerative therapies. iPSCs are cells that were originally from adult tissues, but have been forced to produce proteins that are thought to be essential for the pluripotency of human embryonic stem cells. By making cells express these embryonic stem cell proteins, adult cells can be created that look and act nearly identical to hESCs.

Caption

Applying Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer in the Creation of Dolly the Cloned Sheep. Dolly the sheep was cloned through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). An adult cell from the mammary gland of a Finn-Dorset ewe acted as the nuclear donor; it was fused with an enucleated egg from a Scottish Blackface ewe, which acted as the cytoplasmic (or egg) donor. An electrical pulse acted to fuse the cells and activate the oocyte after injection into the surrogate mother ewe. A successfully implanted oocyte developed into the lamb Dolly, a clone of the nuclear donor, the Finn-Dorset ewe.

The idea of reprogramming a cell from adult tissue into an embryonic-like, pluripotent cell existed long before the creation of iPSCs. In 1938, Hans Spemann showed that a nucleus from a fertilized salamander egg that had already undergone cell division several times could be implanted into a cell from a newly fertilized salamander egg that is enucleated (has had its nucleus removed) and create an entire adult salamander (Spemann, 1938). Consequently, Spemann’s work suggests that an embryonic nucleus remains totipotent, or is able to develop into any cell type of the adult body, even after several cell divisions. Due to technical difficulties, it was several years before researchers could repeat these experiments using older nuclei to see how long the nucleus retains its pluripotency. In the early 1950s, Robert Briggs and Thomas King repeated Spemann’s experiments using a species of leopard frog, Rana pipiens, first with a nucleus from young embryos (Briggs and King, 1952) then from older embryos (King and Briggs, 1954); both the younger and older implanted nuclei could still be reprogrammed by the enucleated host cell. However, they also observed that the older the donor nucleus was, the more difficult it was to reprogram it to a totipotent state. For years it was unclear whether the nucleus from a fully differentiated, adult cell could be completely reprogrammed, as conflicting results were published by different groups (Briggs and King, 1957; Fishberg et al., 1958; Gurdon and Byrne, 2003).

Although the studies done by Spemann, Briggs, and King used nuclei from embryos, their results are the basis for somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). SCNT is a technique wherein the nucleus from a somatic cell (an adult cell that is not a sperm or egg, i.e. not the gametes) is implanted into an enucleated egg cell which can then be implanted into, and develop in, a surrogate mother, and potentially become an adult organism. The resultant organism is a clone of the animal that donated the nucleus. The first widely-accepted successful use of SCNT came with the creation of the sheep Dolly in 1997, the first cloned animal from an adult cell and the first cloned mammal (Wilmut et al., 1997). Since then, several other animals have been successfully cloned, though many problems still remain and there are low success rates (Wilmut et al., 1997; Wakayama et al., 1998; Solter, 1998; McKinnell and Di Bernardino, 1999; Gurdon and Byrne, 2003).

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Human Embryonic Stem Cells: A Decade of Discovery, Controversy, and Potential

April 19th, 2009

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their discovery, and in the decade since their isolation they have possibly received more press coverage, both over their many potential applications as well as ethical concerns, than any other type of stem cell. In the last decade, much progress has been made in better understanding these cells and their capabilities. hESCs hold much promise not only for being cellular models of human development and function, but also for use in the field of regenerative medicine. However, due to ethical and application concerns, only recently have these cells made it to clinical trials.

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Figure 1: The Blastocyst. Human embryonic stem cells are isolated from early-stage embryos in the late blastocyst stage, about four or five days after fertilization. The blastocyst is a hollow sphere made of approximately 150 cells and contains three distinct areas: the trophoblast, which is the surrounding outer layer that later becomes the placenta, the blastocoel, which is a fluid-filled cavity within the blastocyst, and the inner cell mass, also known as the embryoblast, which can become the embryo proper, or fetus, and is where hESCs are isolated from.

Though human embryonic stem cells were isolated just over a decade ago, embryonic stem cells were successfully isolated from other animals before this. Nearly 30 years ago, two groups independently reported the isolation of mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs) (Martin, 1981; Evans and Kaufman, 1981). The mESCs were isolated from early-stage mouse embryos, approximately four to six days post-fertilization (out of 21 days total for mouse gestation). At this point in development, the embryo is in the late blastocyst stage (see figure 1). It was not until the mid-1990s that this feat was accomplished with non-human primates by Dr. James Thomson’s group (Thomson et al., 1995). Only a few years later, embryonic stem cells isolated from humans, once again by Thomson’s group, in 1998 (Thomson et al., 1998).

It is important to understand where hESCs come from in order to understand the ethical arguments that surround them, as well as their enormous, innate biological potential. Like mESCs, hESCs are isolated from early-stage embryos that are, specifically, in the late blastocyst stage, about four or five days after fertilization. After the fertilized egg cell starts cell division, what is referred to as the “blastocyst” occurs once the cell has divided into a hollow sphere made up of approximately 150 cells (see figure 1). At this point, the embryo has not even yet been implanted in the uterus. The blastocyst contains three distinct areas: the trophoblast, which is the surrounding outer layer that later becomes the placenta, the blastocoel, which is a fluid-filled cavity within the blastocyst, and the inner cell mass, also known as the embryoblast, which can become the embryo proper, or fetus. Embryonic stem cells can be created from cells taken from the inner cell mass (Stem Cell Basics: What are embryonic stem cells?, 2009). Because these cells are taken from such an early stage in development, they have the ability to become cells of any tissue type (except for the whole embryo itself), making them pluripotent. The pluripotency of hESCs is probably the trait that contributes most to their enormous potential, both as models of cell function and human development and, potentially, for uses in regenerative medicine. Being pluripotent and seemingly unlimited in supply separates hESCs from adult stem cells, which are multipotent or unipotent, able to become a more select group of cell types, and more limited in their cellular lifespan.

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Mesenchymal Stem Cells: A Diverse Family, Large and Still Growing

March 15th, 2009

Perhaps containing more different cell types than any other stem cell category, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can be isolated from a wide variety of tissues in the human body. These cells have been grouped and labeled as “mesenchymal” because they are thought to have a common progenitor in the mesenchyme, an embryonic tissue (Caplan, 2005). In the developing vertebrate embryo, there are three distinct “germ layers,” or layers of cells: the endoderm, the mesoderm, and the ectoderm. Together with the germ cells, these three layers pattern out the entire body (see figure). The mesenchyme is a collection of cells mostly derived from the mesoderm that later becomes supportive structures throughout the body, including bone, cartilage, connective tissue, smooth muscle, adipose tissue, as well as the lymphatic and hematopoietic systems. Most MSCs are thought to contain progenitors in the mesenchyme (Gilbert, 2003; Conrad et al., 2009; Caplan, 2005).

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The endoderm layer later becomes skin (epidermis) and the nervous system, the ectoderm becomes the digestive tract and respiratory system, and the mesoderm becomes bone, blood, muscles, connective tissue, and several organs (heart, kidney, and gonads).

However, calling MSCs “mesenchymal” can be misleading. Because this term refers to a precursor of the large MSC family, it is referring to an embryonic tissue, though the descendant MSCs can be found in both fetal and adult tissues. MSCs have been isolated from adult muscle, bone marrow, adipose tissue, cartilage, bone, potentially teeth (Caplan, 2005) as well as some fetal tissues (fetal liver, lung, amniotic fluid, and umbilical cord) (Phinney and Prockop, 2007). The MSCs isolated from any one of these tissues are multipotent and are usually shown to be MSCs by being able to differentiate into at least three different, standard mesenchymal cell types: osteocytes (bone), chondrocytes (cartilage), and adipocytes (fat) (Baksh et al., 2004). There is much evidence, though somewhat inconsistent, showing that MSCs can also differentiate into neuronal cells, which may be from mesenchyme derived from the endoderm instead of the mesoderm (Gilbert, 2003; Phinney and Prockop, 2007). Overall, MSC differentiation potentials can vary depending on what mesenchyme-derived tissue the MSCs were harvested from (Phinney and Prockop, 2007). However, MSCs cannot become hematopoietic cells (which are derived from hematopoietic stem cells), even though these cells are derived from the mesenchyme, making the label “mesenchymal” more deceptive (Gilbert, 2003; Caplan, 2005).

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