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Better Understanding Cancer and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Through Their Similarities

September 13th, 2009

Recently, many papers have come out that highlight connections between cancer and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), the latter of which was discussed previously. These papers hold many implications for not only iPSCs, but for our understanding of cancer as well. Additionally, these papers should not at all be thought of as invalidating the importance of iPSCs for studying and treating future therapies, but they should help us better understand what iPSCs are and how to use them appropriately.

The most recent and most publicized link between iPSCs and cancer is p53. p53, also known as protein 53 (53 referring to its molecular mass), is a well-studied protein whose normal function is important in preventing cancer. Though p53 has many different roles, they are quite related. In essence, the job of p53 is to make sure the cell does not accumulate DNA damage, or DNA mutations, which could eventually make the cell cancerous. When a cell has its DNA damaged, often from external stresses, p53 stops the normal cell cycle to fix the DNA damage. If the damage is too great to repair, p53 can prevent the cell from dividing, which would create more damaged cells; p53 initiates programmed cell death, or apoptosis. The potential tumor cell dies. Overall, p53 functions as a “tumor suppressor” to prevent abnormal cells from occurring and multiplying into a cancer (Vazquez et al., 2008). Consequently, it has been found that p53 is mutated in approximately 50% of all human tumors, and other tumors may have mutations in the pathway regulating p53 activity (Vazquez et al., 2008). p53 is therefore well-studied as an oncogene, or a gene that when not functioning normally can contribute to a normal cell becoming cancerous.

So what does p53 have to do with iPSCs? One recently discovered connection is with the generation of iPSCs. Recently, many research groups discovered that when p53 is deleted from, or damaged in, their cells, they could more easily become iPSCs (Hong et al., 2009; Kawamura et al., 2009; Utikal et al., 2009; Li et al., 2009; Zhao et al., 2008). As posted earlier, iPSCs are cells that were originally from adult tissues, but have been “reprogrammed” to be pluripotent stem cells, or stem cells able to become all the adult cells of the body, looking and functioning nearly identical to human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) (Takahashi et al., 2007; Yu et al., 2007).

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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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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.

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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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Stem Cells Discovered in Menstrual Blood: Endometrial Regenerative Stem Cells

March 27th, 2009

Often the feasibility of using stem cells for regenerative therapies is limited by two factors: obtaining a significant number of cells and doing so in a relatively noninvasive manner. Because our bodies freely shed a limited and select number of cells, many stem cell types must be obtained using a rather invasive procedure. However, around the beginning of last year two laboratories independently reported the discovery of a new type of stem cell that may overcome both obstacles; stem cells were found to reside in menstrual blood (Meng et al., 2007; Patel et al., 2008). These stem cells, termed endometrial regenerative cells (ERCs), are not only harvested in a noninvasive manner and relatively readily available in large quantities, but they potentially overcome the problem of immune rejection in many female patients as well.

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The uterus is lined by a layer of cells called the endometrium. During the menstrual cycle, the endometrium cycles between thickening and being broken down if fertilization does not occur. The break down and expulsion of the endometrium is called menstruation, or menstrual bleeding, and is the source of endometrial regenerative cells (ERCs).

Researchers suspected stem cells to be present in menstrual blood because stem cells were previously found to be present in the lining of the uterus. The wall of the uterus is lined by a layer of cells called the endometrium (see figure). To create ideal conditions for the uterus to accept and nurture an embryo, the endometrium lining becomes thicker and increases the number of blood vessels and glands within it. However, if implantation does not occur, the endometrium lining is broken down and shed. Overall, the endometrium is quite a hyperproliferative tissue, continuously being broken down and rebuilt; it is an ideal tissue to investigate for the presence of stem cells. In the menstrual cycle, the shedding is known as menstruation, or menstrual bleeding; the excreted menstrual blood is made up of blood as well as cells from the endometrium layer. Researchers previously reported the presence of stem cells in the intact endometrium lining of the uterus (Cho et al., 2004; Schwab et al., 2005; Du and Taylor, 2007). Because stem cells were found in the endometrium, researchers thought it likely that stem cells could also be found in the shed endometrium in the form of menstrual blood, which can be obtained in relatively large quantities in a much less invasive manner. However, the stem cells discovered in menstrual blood, ERCs, appear to be rather different from stem cells derived from the intact endometrium.

While stem cells from the intact endometrium appear to be mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs, as discussed earlier), ERCs do not; they are distinctly different not only in their undifferentiated state, but in the cells they can differentiate into as well. Researchers categorize stem cells into certain groups based off of, among other factors, their cell morphology and the proteins they express. An established stem cell group usually expresses a distinct set of proteins. ERCs, though morphologically appearing mesenchymal, were found to express only some, but not all, proteins characteristic of MSCs. Additionally, ERCs were reported to be able to differentiate into, or become, cells from the three different germ layers (see the previous post on MSCs for more details): mesoderm (muscle, bone, fat, cartilage, and endothelial cells), ectoderm (neurons), and endoderm (liver, pancreas, and lung cells) (Meng et al., 2007; Patel et al., 2008). However, the mesenchymal stem cells from the intact endometrium cannot generate cells from all three germ layers. Overall, ERCs were determined to be functionally distinct from endometrium MSCs (Meng et al., 2007; Hida et al., 2008).

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